Explained | iPhone 14 crash detection feature’s false alarm

Crash detection in the iPhone 14 lineup uses data from a number of sensors then runs it through its motion algorithms to determine whether the device has been in a crash or not

Updated - October 20, 2022 02:17 pm IST

Published - October 18, 2022 11:54 am IST

A file photo of the iPhone 14 lineup displayed at the Apple Fifth Avenue store, in Manhattan, New York

A file photo of the iPhone 14 lineup displayed at the Apple Fifth Avenue store, in Manhattan, New York | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: On September 7, in its “Far Out” event Apple released the iPhone 14 line-up. Along with other updates, the new phones got a feature the company called ‘Crash Detection’. The feature makes the phone detect when the user has a fall and makes a call to emergency assistance service. The feature is also designed to share important information like location of the user with assistance services. However, reports have emerged in the U.S of the new iPhones calling emergency assistance services when users are on a rollercoaster ride. 

How does Crash Detection work?

The crash detection feature, available throughout the iPhone 14 line-up, makes use of the dual-core accelerometers, the dynamic range gyroscope, barometer, GPS and microphone. These provide critical information used to detect ambient changes. 

The information collected includes G-force measurements, changes in cabin pressure, sudden changes in speed and detection of loud noises.   

According to Apple, this information is used by its motion algorithms to determine whether the device has been in a crash or not. Apple states that its algorithms have been trained with over a million hours of real-world driving and crash record data to provide accurate results. 

Upon detecting a crash, the feature brings up an emergency services call interface on the iPhone. The interface can be used to dismiss the call within 20 seconds. If that is not done, it is designed to call for assistance and share the user’s latitudinal and longitudinal location with an approximate search radius. 

 In case the device is connected with a vehicle using CarPlay, emergency calls activated by the vehicle will be directed through the iPhone. 

Crash detection is also available on the Apple Watch and emergency calls are routed through it if users have it on when in a crash. The feature works only when devices have an active network connection. 

The crash detection features, thus makes use of the data collected by the different hardware features to determine the intensity of a crash and contact emergency assistance services. 

What could be causing the iPhone to dial 911 on rollercoasters?

So far numerous reports of the iPhone calling emergency services when taken on rollercoasters have emerged from across the U.S. In Kings Island, an amusement park, crash detection triggered calls to emergency services on at least six different occasions. 

It seems the combination of quick acceleration, loud ambient sound, and sudden changes in pressure, all experienced on a rollercoaster, are triggering the crash detection feature. 

And while all these changes are experienced in a car crash as well, Apple’s algorithms that have been designed to react to these changes are unable to differentiate between a car crash and a roller coaster ride. 

This then seems to be the main culprit behind accidental triggering of crash detection. 

Apple executives have stated that G-forces are the biggest factor in determining a car crash. Rapid changes and high G-force experienced on a rollercoaster may be behind accidental triggers, , according to a report by TechCrunch 

The executives, however, said that determining a car crash is a complex process and there is “no silver bullet” when looking at reliable indicators of a crash. Therefore, determining the exact factor behind accidental triggers might not be easy.

The report also reveals that the iPhone 14 line-up can use satellite SOS to route emergency calls when active network connection is not available. The feature, however, is only available in the U.S. and Canada for now.  

How to avoid accidental triggers?

The simple solution to avoid accidental calls to emergency services is to not take the devices with crash detection on rollercoasters or other rides in an amusement park. But, as that might not always be possible, users can either switch off their devices or simply put them on airplane mode. Which would ensure that even if crash detection is activated it will not be able to make calls due to the absence of an active mobile connection. 

Users can also disable “call after serious crash” that can be found in Emergency SOS settings in the iPhone 14 line-up. Another possible solution could be geo-tagging amusement parks to disable crash detection in certain areas. However, this solution will need a software upgrade from Apple. 

Accidental calls to emergency services is not a new problem. Features allowing users to make 911 calls in case of an emergency has been baked into Android and iOS software for some time now. 

However, their reliability is somewhat questionable. Reports have emerged of Pixel phones unable to make emergency service calls in the U.S and Australia. 

In December 2021, reports had also emerged of Pixel phones getting stuck dialling 911 emergency services. At the time the problem reportedly originating in the power button had devices rebooting and dialling 911. 

Apple’s iPhones had previously faced similar problems in 2018 when reports of accidental calls to emergency services had emerged. Earlier devices from Apple starting from the iPhone X had also faced the problem when long pressing power and volume buttons would call emergency services. After reports of several accidental calls emerged the company added an alert that would notify users before making the call. 

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