The Wall Street JournalJoanna Stern recently traveled to Michigan to test Apple’s new crash detection feature on the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Ultra. In response, Apple provided more information about how the feature works.
Stern recruited Michael Barabe to crash his heavy-duty steel-frame demolition derby car into two unoccupied vehicles parked at a junkyard—a 2003 Ford Taurus and a 2008 Dodge Caravan. The results were mixed, with the iPhone and Apple Watch only detecting some crashes, which was according to Apple, a result of junkyard testing conditions that didn’t provide enough “signals” to trigger the feature every time.
When I contacted Apple with the results, a company spokesperson said that the test conditions at the junkyard didn’t give the iPhone enough signals to trigger the feature in stopped cars. It wasn’t connected to Bluetooth or CarPlay, which would indicate the car was in use, and the vehicles may not have traveled far enough before the crash to indicate driving. If the iPhone received those additional indicators — and if its GPS showed the cars were on the actual road — the likelihood of an alert would be greater, he said.
Apple says its crash detection feature relies on “advanced motion algorithms designed by Apple trained with over a million hours of real-world driving and crash recordings.” Stern outlined the various hardware sensors and software algorithms that help with crash detection on supported iPhone and Apple Watch models:
• Motion sensors: All devices have a three-axis gyroscope and a high-powered accelerometer that samples motion more than 3,000 times per second. This means that the devices can detect the exact moment of impact and any change in the movement or trajectory of the vehicle.
• Microphones: Microphones are used to detect loud sound levels that could indicate a crash. The microphones only turn on when driving is detected, and no actual sound is recorded, Apple says.
• Barometer: If the airbags inflate with the windows closed, the barometer can detect the change in air pressure.
• GPS: Data can be used to detect pre-accident speed and sudden lack of movement, as well as inform the device that it is driving on the road.
• CarPlay and Bluetooth: Once connected, they give the algorithms another signal that the phone is on board the car, so it knows to watch out for a crash.
Crash detection is enabled by default on iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, iPhone 14 Pro Max, Apple Watch Series 8, Apple Watch SE second generation, and Apple Watch Ultra. This feature can be found in the Settings app under Emergency SOS → Serious crash call and is not available on older iPhone and Apple Watch models.
Apple’s website says the crash detection feature is designed to detect “severe” car accidents such as “frontal, side and rear crashes and rollovers” involving “sedans, minivans, SUVs, pickup trucks and other passenger cars.” Apple warns that the feature “can’t detect all car crashes,” so it’s not fail-safe.
When a serious car crash is detected, a supported iPhone or Apple Watch will display a notification and trigger an alarm, Apple says. If the user is able, they can call 911 by sliding the Emergency Call slider on the iPhone or Apple Watch, or cancel the alert. If they don’t respond to the alert after 10 seconds, the device will start another 10-second countdown. If they still don’t respond, the device calls emergency services.
Apple says that if a serious car accident is detected, users will communicate with the Apple Watch if they are wearing it. Otherwise, users interact with the iPhone.
All in all, while Stern said her test wasn’t exactly scientific, it’s reassuring that the feature caught some crashes. However, tests involving stationary vehicles in a controlled environment can never truly replicate a collision on the street.
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