iPhones call 911 after confusing rollercoasters with car crashes

10 Oct 2022

Image: © TOimages/Stock.adobe.com

The new safety feature in the iPhone 14 line-up and latest Apple Watches has been experiencing some ups and downs.

The crash detection feature in Apple’s latest mobile devices can call 911 and emergency contacts in the event of a collision. However, it has reportedly been triggered by rollercoasters and other non-emergency situations.

The glitch was reported by The Wall Street Journal, which spoke to a Cincinnati woman whose two-day-old iPhone 14 Pro automatically contacted emergency services while she was enjoying a day out in a theme park.

While she was aboard the Mystic Timbers rollercoaster, her iPhone dialled 911 and delivered the repeated automated voice message: “The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash and is not responding to their phone.” Cries from aboard the rollercoaster and other sounds from the park could be heard in the background.

The iPhone message included the estimated latitude and longitude of its owner’s location and the 911 operator dispatched a team to the theme park, where there was no emergency.

It was not the first time this park was hit with iPhone false alarms either, with local emergency services reporting six automated crash-detection calls from the site since the iPhone 14 models landed in September.

The Wall Street Journal also reports that these false alarms have been triggered by phones that have been dropped while driving or just after, and a phone that flew off the handlebars of a motorcycle.

How crash detection works (and doesn’t)

Apple’s crash detection feature is designed to distinguish a severe car crash using its accelerometer and gyroscope. The feature is included in the new iPhone 14 suite as well as the Watch Series 8, SE and Ultra.

It is meant to recognise when a user is within a vehicle and is triggered by signals such as rapid deceleration or a sudden stop – all of which could easily be confused by a rollercoaster ride.

If triggered, the device then shows a warning on screen for 10 seconds, followed by a 10-second alarm sound. If the user does not intervene in this window, the device will automatically call 911 and send a text to an emergency contact if there’s one saved.

Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal previously flagged the system’s inadequacies in an intensive test with a demolition derby champion. In this case, the system triggered only when specific crash parameters were met.

“Two wrecked cars and four deployed air bags later, we got Apple’s new marketing gem to work. But in order to trigger consistently and reliably, the system in both the phone and watch needs a lot of sensor data and other signals,” wrote Stern.

While these false alarms and missed detections have alerted users to serious flaws in the system, the crash detection technology delivered on its intended purpose when it alerted authorities to a fatal crash in Nebraska which reportedly had no witnesses.

Apple claims the algorithms behind the feature were tested vigorously on more than 1m hours of data from real-world driving and crash-test labs. A spokesperson assured The Wall Street Journal that, despite the errors, the system is “extremely accurate in detecting severe crashes” and efforts have been made to minimise false alarms. Apple also said it will improve the technology over time.

In the meantime, users should certainly adhere to theme park guidelines and not bring their smartphones on thrill rides. Otherwise –particularly for Apple Watch users – they can disable the feature, which is on by default, or switch to flight mode.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.