- 25 years ago, Mercedes-Benz breaks new ground with the automatic emergency call system
- Crash sensors, GPS and mobile phone are key technical prerequisites
- A spirit of optimism in the early years of telematics
Stuttgart. The connected car is taken for granted today. 25 years ago, things were very different. At that time, Mercedes-Benz broke new ground with a system: in January 1997, the brand introduces the production version of the TELEAID automatic emergency call system. The term (first written divided as TELE AID after the launch) stands for “telematic alarm identification on demand”. The purpose is to notifiy police and rescue services and direct them to the scene. Because the shorter the response time, the slighter the health consequences after a serious accident. TELEAID is initially available in the S-Class and the CL Coupés of the 140 series from autumn 1997, before other models are also equipped with it. A preview of the system was provided back in 1993 in the vehicle study Vision A 93, still under the name ARTHUR (automatic radio communication system for traffic emergency situations on highways and urban roads).
The automatic emergency call system was developed as part of the European PROMETHEUS development project. “At that time, there was a spirit of optimism to combine electronics and informatics with telecommunications to create telematics,” remembers Prof. Hermann Gaus, former Head of Overall Vehicle and Electrics/Electronics at Mercedes-Benz. “This resulted in completely new opportunities in the automotive sector as well. The idea for the automatic emergency call came up in the 1980s. But the technical requirements were not yet sufficiently there.”
This changed in the 1990s with the introduction of key components. For example, GPS satellite positioning (Global Positioning System) is increasingly used in civilian applications – Mercedes-Benz introduces the navigation system Auto Pilot System APS in the S-Class in 1995 as a groundbreaking innovation. Digital mobile phones also become increasingly widespread. Mercedes-Benz has been using crash sensors for some time, e.g. to trigger airbags and seat belt tensioners. All this in combination with appropriate control units with software usher in the breakthrough: if the crash sensors detect an accident, TELEAID can automatically transmit the vehicle position, the direction of travel and the number of occupants to an emergency call centre via the wireless telephone and also tries to establish a voice connection. This way, the emergency call centre can directly check the situation on site – or, if the driver does not answer, organise help. Another milestone in safety development is reached. The emergency call can also be triggered manually at any time by pressing the “SOS” button in the control panel in the roof.
Several years of development until the system is ready for series production
Of course, it takes several years to develop the system to production maturity before its presentation in January 1997. Many details need to be clarified, such as the type of data transmission. Mercedes-Benz decides to send an accident telegram with all relevant information to the system’s emergency call centre via the SMS channel. Gaus pushes the idea of exclusively using a built-in telephone and not an external mobile phone for this purpose. “Only with a reliably available telephone can the system offer a reliable function,” Gaus argues. “Because a mobile phone might just be switched off or not on board”. TELEAID is first launched in Germany and the USA, then in Japan shortly afterwards.
“An important prerequisite was also to set up emergency call centres, the so-called ‘backends’,” recalls Ralf Piske, a development engineer at the Mercedes-Benz Technology Centre in Sindelfingen then and now. “Together with Bosch, we accomplished this for Germany. In the USA, we were able to use existing emergency call centres. Japan could also be tapped. The next step, however, was not trivial either: extending the concept to other European countries.” That also succeeds. From spring 2004, TELEAID is available in nine European countries.
As is so often the case with forward-looking technology: it does not have an easy time asserting itself in the market. TELEAID keeps hitting economic limits in Europe because of a “chicken and egg” problem. The system must be purchased as an optional extra including an expensive wireless telephone permanently installed in the vehicle, for which a mobile phone contract is also required – very costly marketing for the dealers and also time-consuming when changing vehicles. Thus, the number of customers remains below the planned figures and the financing of the emergency call centres is difficult. In 2005, Mercedes-Benz discontinued the emergency call system in Europe for several years. This is different in the USA, where it has been running since its launch and remains uninterrupted to this day. This is because built-in telephones in cars are much more widespread there, as is the willingness to pay money for a safety-enhancing system.
A fundamentally new system from 2012
But Mercedes-Benz remains convinced of the basic idea and does not lose sight of it. From the 2010s onwards, conditions change worldwide and the technical components also become cheaper: Gradually, each car is equipped with a permanently installed wireless module, making it independent of the customer’s mobile phone.
“That made the new beginning possible. Today’s automatic emergency call from Mercedes-Benz is permanently installed in the car, completely functional and at the ready, like the airbag, for example. Emergency call transmission works much faster than before. An additional communication contract is no longer necessary. These are important advantages and simplifications – for customers, dealers and also backend operators,” explains Achim Mueller. The project manager for Mercedes-Benz Emergency Call at the MTC rolls out the new system together with his colleagues starting in Europe in 2012. Other markets follow, such as China in 2016, Japan and South Korea in 2017 and India in 2019. In the USA, too, the new generation replaces the previous system. Today, there are 53 markets in total. “The business model as a whole is now so efficient that the Mercedes-Benz emergency call has become mass marketable,” Mueller summarises.
Many advantages through improved technology
Furthermore, it uses the SMS channel of the mobile networks because this can be used in all network generations. In addition, there is parallel data transmission on the voice channel. This combination significantly increases availability. Because when the mobile network is weak, it is often no longer possible to connect a voice call, but an SMS can manage to make it through. As older mobile networks are successively switched off and replaced by ones with new standards, the experts are already working on a solution to transmit accident data on the signalling channels of IP-based voice calls in 4G and 5G mobile networks.
The cross-border function is considerably simplified. This is because the information about the driver’s national language is now stored in the emergency call hardware in the car and part of the emergency call telegram. Drivers travelling abroad are addressed in their native language by the emergency call centre of their home country. If assistance is required on site, a second agent informs the emergency call centre in the country of stay in the required language so that assistance can be quickly directed to the scene of the accident.
The Mercedes-Benz emergency call is constantly being further developed. For example, calls can now be triggered manually, not just at the touch of a button but also via voice control using MBUX. And it has also long since arrived in the age of autonomy: if the driver does not put their hands back on the steering wheel after repeated requests during assisted driving, the vehicle initiates an emergency stop and automatically triggers the emergency call.
Once again successful pioneering work by Mercedes-Benz
Initially with TELEAID and also with the successor systems, Mercedes-Benz has once again successfully pioneered vehicle safety. Automatic emergency calls are considered to be so important that the European Union has made an eCall system mandatory for all new type-approved vehicles in the EU from April 2018. This currently uses solely the voice channel.
For example, a Mercedes-Benz delivered in the EU today has two systems: the emergency call is initially triggered via the vehicle’s own technological system both as a text message and via the voice channel. The EU eCall system, which is also available, acts as a fallback level. A comprehensive solution – with the identical goal as in the early days of the Mercedes-Benz emergency call of help being called as quickly as possible in the event of an emergency.