Automatic crash detection devices seem like a good idea for peace of mind—both your own, and the peace of your loved ones. You don’t want to think about crashing, of course—but what happens if you’re in a crash where you need emergency assistance, and you have no way to call for it yourself? A system that can reliably do that for you sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
That’s what Apple’s Crash Detection tries to offer. Iterations of it have been around for some time—and we’ve written about some instances in the past where Fall Detection and Crash Detection have alerted to notify that a device’s owner may be having emergency-worthy trouble.
The potential has been and remains extremely promising—but the latest iteration may be too sensitive, as recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal finds. Multiple instances of the Crash Detection feature on the iPhone 14 have apparently been triggered by rollercoaster rides in Ohio and Illinois, according to 911 call center logs obtained by WSJ. In total, six were triggered by rides at the Kings Island amusement park in Ohio, while one was triggered by a coaster at Six Flags Great America in northern Illinois.
It’s not just rollercoasters, though. A motorcyclist named Douglas Sonders was out riding in New York City in September when his new iPhone 14 Pro Max apparently hurtled off the handlebars and into the street. He figured that it had hit so hard, there was no way the phone could be OK—so he didn’t even try to go back for it, and figured he would just need to get a new phone.
It was only later that he found out the phone had alerted emergency services and all his listed emergency contacts about a crash that it detected. The feature sent out text messages that read, “Crash Detected SOS: Douglas Sonders called emergency services from this approximate location after iPhone detected a crash. You’re receiving this message because Douglas has you listed as an emergency contact.” It also displayed a map showing the approximate location of the emergency phone call.
Naturally, his friends and family were freaked out—but this case seems more like the system doing what it was designed to do than the rollercoaster instances. For his part, Sonders said that he’s going to keep using it, and his mom was glad that the system seems to work. However, the rollercoaster thing—and the fact that there are multiple instances that have been reported so far—indicates that more fine-tuning is necessary.
How Does Apple’s Crash Detection Work?
On Apple’s iPhone 14 and Apple Watch 8 series, the new gyroscope and accelerometer that are present can detect G Force up to 256 Gs, iPhone worldwide product marketing VP Kaiann Drance told TechCrunch. At the same time, the new gyroscope can detect speed changes more quickly than previous versions.
It’s not just these two things that trigger Crash Detection, though. The feature also potentially relies on input from your GPS, barometer, and/or microphone to detect whether a crash has occurred. The phone needs to detect multiple potential crash inputs happening at once, so a simple fall—such as, say, out of your pocket—shouldn't be enough to trigger it.
“There’s no silver bullet, in terms of activating crash detection. It’s hard to say how many of these things have to trigger, because it’s not a straight equation,” Apple sensing and connectivity VP Ron Huang told TechCrunch.
“Depending how fast the traveling speed was earlier, determines what signals we have to see later on, as well. Your speed change, combined with the impact force, combined with the pressure change, combined with the sound level, it’s all a pretty dynamic algorithm,” he said.
The TechCrunch interview—which was conducted prior to WSJ’s reporting on rollercoaster 911 calls—ironically also included this quote from Drance:
“I actually had a rear-end fender bender when I was in New York earlier. My crash detection did not go off, because it’s just one of those minor things where you just get out of your car and keep going. That’s part of the sensor fusion and accuracy, because we don’t want to be doing a lot of false calls to 9-1-1 when they’re not necessary.”
It seems like there are two takeaways from all this. Firstly, if you have an iPhone or Apple Watch, be aware that false positives can happen, so hopefully you can avoid false emergency alerts. Secondly, it’s likely that Apple engineers are already working on ways to address the problem, particularly with the kind of publicity these incidents have received. How quickly such fixes will roll out remains to be seen, but it’s probably best practice to keep an eye on what your phone (or smartwatch) is doing, just in general.