Apple unveiled its slate of new mobile products on Wednesday — the next generation Apple Watches, AirPods Pro and iPhones. The upgrades were mostly incremental (in the case of the non-Pro iPhone 14, really incremental), but weirdly, the one consistency that carried through each reveal was car crashes.
See, Apple’s latest watches and phones are able to detect when you’ve experienced a car accident, though a criteria of circumstances that must be satisfied concurrently. A new accelerometer — the component in electronics that detects motion — can now register up to 256 Gs. That’s cross-referenced with sudden changes in direction via the gyroscope, alterations in cabin pressure thanks to the barometer, extreme peaks in recorded sound from the microphone and, of course, actual car crash data if it’s available.
If many or all of these conditions are met, the device surmises you’ve been in a crash and prepares a 911 call. Not immediately — you have some time to cancel it, if you’re able. No fewer than three of the company’s sizzle reels yesterday showed automobiles in various states of distress, prompting observations like this:
If you follow this kind of stuff, you may not be surprised to know that Android devices have been doing this for years now. In 2019, Google added car crash detection to its Pixel line. Google’s methods of determining accidents may not be as sophisticated as Apple’s, given the new hardware in the upcoming iPhones and watches, but it has existed and has worked. The difference is that way more people notice Apple’s marketing, because way more people buy Apple’s phones.
And Apple’s been hard at work on this for some time. There’s reason to believe its methodology is very refined, because the company’s engineers have had access to years worth of data collected from its devices being present in crashing vehicles, that’s then used to train machine-learning algorithms. From a Wall Street Journal story dated last November:
Apple has been testing the crash-detection feature in the past year by collecting data shared anonymously from iPhone and Apple Watch users, the documents show. Apple products have already detected more than 10 million suspected vehicle impacts, of which more than 50,000 included a call to 911.
Apple has been using the 911 call data to improve the accuracy of its crash-detection algorithm, since an emergency call associated with a suspected impact gives Apple more confidence that it is indeed a car crash, according to the documents.
For what its worth, OnStar has long since transitioned from its day of GM-only call centers to a standalone app that you can download on any phone and is able to detect accidents, in the way all smartphones have the capability to. For a recurring monthly charge, of course.
Health continues to be a major pillar of Apple’s language around its products, and it’s not hard to understand why. Stories about how a person’s Apple Watch registered a serious fall or an early warning sign of a cardiovascular emergency regularly make the news. The new Emergency SOS feature, also announced yesterday, uses satellites to let users text loved ones and contact first responders even when cellular service is unavailable. It comes free with the purchase of a new iPhone for two years — after that, it’ll cost a fee that Apple hasn’t disclosed yet. In that context, the addition of car crash detection to the iPhone’s bag of tricks makes a lot of sense, even if it isn’t groundbreaking.