Recent Apple hardware the events were punctuated by a touch of doom and gloom. It’s a tonal shift from the usual celebratory nature of these presentations, all by design of course. The Apple Watch was the first at the party. Features such as AFib readings and fall detection have given way to video testimonies of users who survived close calls thanks to the wearable device.
At the Far Out event in September, the company introduced another feature that falls into the category of updates that hopefully you’ll never need. Crash detection for the iPhone and Apple Watch has since proved a misunderstood addition, in part due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to test.
Last week, TechCrunch sat down with a couple of Apple executives for a conversation about the details of the feature. Vice President, Sensing & Connectivity, Ron Huang, and Vice President, Worldwide iPhone Product Marketing, Kaiann Drance, answered some of our burning questions about crash detection, to give us a better picture of what Apple’s latest security brings. on the table for iPhone and Apple Watch users.
The addition of the feature comes in large part thanks to a new gyroscope and accelerometer. “It’s mainly the takeover of G Force,” says Drance. It can detect G Force up to 256 Gs. This was one of the key differences for the new accelerometers that the new watches and phones have. “
Huang adds: “It started with our fundamental understanding of what is experienced during an accident. In these accidents, you see impact forces greater than 100 (G). We started around 256. Whenever you try to increase that range, there are trade-offs, in terms of accuracy at the higher range and energy costs. The team took a lot of work to build the sensors in this way. “
The new gyroscope, meanwhile, is designed to detect speed changes faster than previous versions. As for the myriad of other ways components are used on devices, Apple says, “they provide the same great level of performance for other things like camera stabilization, gaming, etc.”
Ultimately, the gyroscope and accelerometer are just two of the sensors here. The list also includes GPS to determine if the user is traveling at high speed, the microphone to monitor the sounds of an accident, and the barometer, which detects the change in pressure that occurs when the airbags are deployed. Not all systems need to collect associated data to activate the system. For example, if the car windows are rolled down, the change in barometric pressure will be too small to affect the reading.
“There is no silver bullet in terms of triggering incident detection,” says Huang. “It’s hard to say how many of these things should trigger, because it’s not a straightforward equation. Depending on the previous running speed, it also determines which signals we need to see next. Your speed change, combined with the impact force, combined with the pressure change, combined with the sound level, is all a pretty dynamic algorithm. “
The system, however, needs to detect multiple data points at once, so simply dropping your phone into a moving car shouldn’t accidentally trigger the feature.
“I actually had a rear fender bend when I was in New York before,” says Drance. “My crash detection didn’t trigger, because it’s just one of those little things where you get out of the car and move on. This is part of the fusion and accuracy of the sensors, because we don’t want to make a lot of false 9-1-1 calls when they’re not needed. “
The company notes that the feature isn’t specifically designed for something like – God forbid – a train crash, although it adds that other features like fall detection have been used for cases outside of their initial design. “We think crash detection could potentially be this too,” says Huang.
Bluetooth and Carplay are also used to determine that you are in the car, although neither is strictly necessary for the function. “Also, we have added a lot of signals,” says Huang. “Whether it’s road noise or engine noise, we can see it. We can see that the Wi-Fi routers you are using change very quickly, faster than if you are walking or cycling and so on. “
Apple has partnered with a number of crash labs to collect the necessary data and run tests in the real world to ensure an acceptable level of effectiveness for the feature. It is intentionally difficult to activate outside of the intended scenario, so you don’t accidentally call emergency services. This also applies if the phone accidentally falls from the holder while driving or even in a less serious accident.
“We put the iPhones in many different places in the car: on the mannequins and on the car itself, on the stands and so on,” says Huang. “And then we collect all the raw sensor data from these devices during such an incident. We also put cameras inside and outside the cars, so from the footage you can time the actual impact, what the pressure sensors see when the airbag goes off in slow motion. We are able to watch the data in high fidelity. We also look at the data from the Department of Transportation or the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to understand which types of accidents are the main causes of injuries. “
The company did not offer an exact number of traffic accidents needed to create the final dataset, but implied that it was more than “dozen” and added that “thousands” of their devices were used in the process. Apple says such real-world crashes are difficult to simulate, particularly those that can tick the necessary boxes.
It is easy to see how the system could be the most valuable to drivers in rural areas. After all, getting into an accident in a more populated area significantly increases the chances of someone nearby being around to report the accident. In a more remote area, especially in the case of a crash of a part involving an object such as a tree, the function could be a potential lifesaver.
However, just like bystanders, wireless signals can be more difficult to find in such areas.
“Just like any 9-1-1 call, we would try to call it through your network first. If your network is not available, we will try to route to any other available operator, even if it is not the operator you have with your SIM. When there is no coverage, it will be linked to the emergency SOS via the satellite function. If you happen to have such an incident, and there is absolutely no coverage where you are, we will still try to connect via satellite through the emergency SOS feature.
When asked if there are any differences in accuracy between the phone and the watch, Apple just says “they are both very accurate”. Huang adds: “There are differences. The watch is on your wrist and the type of impact you will see on your wrist during an accident will be very different. There are these differences, but, for example, the barometer is very similar with iPhone and Watch. So there are differences based on how the devices are used, positioned or worn. “
The feature is available for iPhone 14 and 14 Pro models, along with Apple Watch Series 8 and Ultra.