Apple held its annual iPhone extravaganza today, and among the debut of gadgets like the iPhone 14 and the chunky, extreme sports-focused Apple Watch Ultra are two new services focused on security. One, car accident detection, includes both gadgets, and the other, which enables emergency satellite communications, is specific to the iPhone.
Here’s what to expect from the two new services.
Car Accident Detection
Apple previously rolled out two features associated with its wearable device that detect if you’ve had a leak: 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 notice that you’ve been in a car accident and then call for help.
Ron Huang, the company’s vice president for discovery and connectivity, said the feature uses new sensors in the Apple Watch and machine learning. While the company’s watches already include gyroscopes and accelerometers, Huang said new versions of these sensors help detect the forces present in a car accident. That new accelerometer, he said, can detect a whopping 256 Gs of acceleration, “allowing it to detect the extreme effects of a crash.”
For context, one G – which stands for gravity – is what you feel pulling you straight to Earth at any given moment, and fighter pilots endure as many as nine or more G’s while performing maneuvers involving hard acceleration or rapid acceleration. In a car accident, the G’s that the watch detects likely arise from forces involved in actions such as the quick stop.
[Related: A new AT&T update could make 911 calls more effective]
Huang also said that the built-in barometer, microphone and GPS chip also aid in the detection process, and that machine learning helped bring everything together. The barometer is involved to measure pressure-related changes due to the deployment of an airbag, a promotional video stated during the event.
The company’s latest phones also offer identical service, says Kaiann Drance, the company’s vice president for iPhone product marketing, meaning you don’t have to buy the latest watch to detect car accidents.
The announcement comes at a grim time for road safety in the United States, as nearly 43,000 people died in car accidents in 2021, an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year. (Pedestrians are a particularly vulnerable group.) But of course, difficult problems such as road safety cannot be solved with something like a gadget.
The second safety feature the company has announced is baked into the new iPhones specifically and involves giving someone like an injured mountaineer a way to call for help via satellite when they’re out of cell phone range.
Apple calls the new feature “Emergency SOS via Satellite,” and it works by instructing the lost walker to point their phone at a distant, fast-moving communications satellite. In order for this feature to work, engineers had to address the bandwidth challenges associated with this form of communication.
“To connect to these satellites, you have to be outside, with a clear view of the sky,” said Ashley Williams, the company’s manager for satellite modeling and simulation. “And the 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 allow this whole system to work include a “custom short text compression algorithm,” Williams said, as well as a dedicated screen interface to report what the problem is, such as clicking the “Lost or Trapped” option. Help handling any calls for help will be a ground network that will also include “relay centers staffed with highly trained emergency response specialists who are ready to get your text and call an emergency service provider on your behalf,” she said, who are involved as the alarm center cannot handle an SMS exchange alone.
The satellite communication service does not incur any additional costs – during the first two years after you purchase an iPhone 14. After that, the sky is the limit. The SOS service will debut in November, only in Canada and the United States.
Watch the entire event below.