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The Smartphone Snitch in Your Pocket

The Smartphone Snitch in Your Pocket
by Roger C. Lanctot on 01-05-2023 at 6:00 am

The Smartphone Snitch in Your Pocket

The story in the New York Times came with a sensational headline: “Couple in Car Survive 300-foot Fall into a Canyon.” The canyon in question was Monkey Canyon in the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles and the couple survived, so the story goes, thanks to their satellite-connectivity-enhanced iPhone.

This is the kind of story that can transform what consumers think they know about SOS calling. It might lead one to believe that automatic crash notification, of the sort provided by OnStar-like services, are unnecessary in a world populated with iPhones and Google Pixel phones equipped with satellite-based SOS calling capability.

You might buy that idea until you read further in the Times story and learn that the iPhone that “saved” the couple in California was found by them 10 yards away from the car with a smashed screen – though somehow still working. The device prompted the couple that it could call for help with the new satellite functionality.

This couple is clearly lucky to be alive and lucky they had an iPhone. Had they been unconscious or unable to find the phone, the outcome might have been different.

The Times story contrasts with reports from across the Internet of iPhones at amusement parks mistaking rollercoaster rides for car crashes. Of course, users could leave their iPhones behind or turn off the emergency function before getting on a roller coaster – but the iPhone misinformation is likely creating at least minor headaches for emergency call centers.

The increasing promotion of smartphone based automatic crash notification is unfortunate but expected given the steadily expanding role of smartphones in cars. Every new car today comes with a companion application that allows for locating the car, operating the car remotely, determining the car’s functional status, and monitoring driver behavior.

If you have bought a new car in the past year or two or intend to in the next year or two your car will provide you with a driving score that you may use to obtain insurance quotes. Simultaneous with this shift has been an industry-wide embrace of mobile apps by insurers.

Insurers also want to evaluate your driving – for obvious reasons – but they also want you to use your phone to report claims. In fact, leading claims management company CCC Intelligent Solutions tells us that 20% of repairable claims are reported today using photo-based estimates derived from smartphones. More than 80% of consumers prefer using mobile claims management, the company says.

Smartphone-based insurance claims management does sound attractive, particularly from the standpoint of accelerating the claims process. But surely consumers will want to retain control of this process.

New technology from companies such as Sfara and Cambridge Mobile Telematics allow for the smartphone-based detection of low-speed crashes. These are precisely the kinds of vehicular interactions that many consumers prefer not to report to their insurance companies.

As we connect our cars and our insurance companies via mobile apps, we might all take care to ensure that we understand precisely which data is being collected and shared and under what circumstances. It’s not clear to me that the default mode for these applications is “opt out,” but it should be.

Smartphones are amazing devices and it is possible for a smartphone – these days – to be a life-saving tool. But the potential for misuse or abuse of personal data is enough to give any smartphone user pause before jumping into this particular pool.

It is also a heads up that the best form of OnStar-like automatic crash notification is built into the vehicle and able to detect the airbag deployment and gather important data from vehicle sensors to be shared with SOS call centers and first responders. Smartphones simply cannot replace this function.

Also Read:

Regulators Wrestle with ‘Explainability’​

Functional Safety for Automotive IP

Don’t Lie to Me

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