Apple held its annual iPhone extravaganza today, and among the debut of gadgets like the iPhone 14 and the massive, extreme-sports-focused Apple Watch Ultra are two new safety-focused services. One of them, car accident detection, includes both gadgets, and the other, enabling emergency satellite communication, is specific to the iPhone.
Here’s what to expect from the two new services.
Car accident detection
Apple has previously released two features related to its wearable that detect if you’ve spilled: a form of daily fall detection (in 2018) and then, last year, a workout-focused version of the same.
A new service announced today aims to spot when you’ve been in a car accident and then call for help.
Ron Huang, the company’s vice president of sensors and connectivity, said the feature uses new sensors in the Apple Watch as well as machine learning. Although the company’s watches already have gyroscopes and accelerometers in them, Huang said the new versions of these sensors help detect the forces present in a car crash. This new accelerometer, he said, can detect up to 256 Gs of acceleration, “allowing it to detect the extreme impacts of a crash.”
For context, a G that stands for gravity is what you feel like it’s pulling you straight down toward the Earth at any given moment, and fighter pilots endure up to nine or more Gs while performing maneuvers in which they bank heavily or accelerate rapidly. In a car crash, the Gs that the watch detects likely result from forces involved in actions such as rapid braking.
[Related: A new AT&T update could make 911 calls more effective]
Huang also said that an on-board barometer, microphone and GPS chip also help in the detection process, and that machine learning helped tie it all together. A barometer is included to measure pressure changes due to airbag deployment, a promotional video during the event he explained.
The company’s latest phones also offer the identical service, said Kaiann Drance, the company’s vice president of iPhone product marketing, meaning you don’t need to buy the latest watch to get car crash recognition.
The announcement comes at a bleak time for road safety in the United States, as nearly 43,000 people died in car crashes in 2021, an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year. (Pedestrians are a particularly vulnerable group.) But of course, tough issues like national road safety are unlikely to be solved with something like a gadget.
The second safety feature the company announced is built specifically into the new iPhones and involves giving someone like an injured mountain climber a way to call for help via satellite when out of range of cell service.
Apple calls the new feature “Emergency SOS via Satellite,” and it works by instructing a lost hiker to point their phone at a distant, fast-moving communications satellite. To make this feature work, engineers had to deal with the bandwidth challenges that come with this form of communication.
“To connect with these satellites, you have to be outside, with a clear view of the sky,” said Ashley Williams, the company’s manager of satellite modeling and simulation. “And bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge.” (So no Netflix via sat.)
[Related: What it’s like to rescue someone at sea from a Coast Guard helicopter]
Other factors that make this whole system work are a “customized short text compression algorithm,” Williams said, as well as a specific on-screen interface for reporting what the problem is, such as by pressing the “Lost or Caught” option. Helping to handle any calls for help will be a land-based network that also includes “relay centers staffed by highly trained emergency responders ready to receive your text and call an emergency service provider on your behalf,” she said. which are involved if the emergency center cannot handle the exchange of text messages on its own.
The satellite communication service will not be available at additional cost – for the first two years after the purchase of the iPhone 14. After that, the sky is the limit. The SOS service debuted in November, only in Canada and the US.
Watch the entire event below.