Crash Detection for Smartphone

a  simple sketch from semantic scholar of how gyroscopes and accelerometers work on smartpones.
Crash Detection for
Smartphones- needs of the gyroscope and accelerometer

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Over the past few weeks I have read stories where journalists total their cars to find out if the Crash Detection for smartphone feature works. Then, this week there was a story about these iPhones dialing emergency workers when riders wearing watches with that feature were upside down on roller coasters. If this is a publicity stunt for the iPhone 14, I don’t think it is a good one. Juliette, New London

Dear Juliette:  It is easy to imagine that this is one big stunt of Crash Detection for smartphones but I doubt that is the full story. The first time that Apple explained the functionality of  the gyroscope/accelerometer combo was in 2010. Although he was near the end of his life, Steve Jobs was clearly proud that the Apple 4.0 engineers had achieved this innovation. It accelerated the gaming industry and sometime later the public recognized the functionality when Apple (and Samsung) marketed watches that could detect if Grandma or Grandpa took a fall.  Older people still prefer to wear these devices instead of bulky red  “911” buttons. And there will continue to be false-alarms.

I do agree that the current claims for Crash Detection and smartphones seem over-hyped, specifically the idea that we need this feature to send rescue workers when we have the bad fortune to be in a remote car accident, out-of-sight. First, this responsive feature is already built into many cars – if you have GM On Star service it will practically start buzzing when your car straddles a large speed hump. Second, unless you are practicing for Nascar trials, you should not be driving this fast on public roads.  Third, most accidents involve two or more vehicles, and it is highly unlikely that one of the survivors or a passerby does not have a phone to summon 911.

The Foundational Chips:

But if you look beyond the rarity of needing the Crash Detection there is a lot to laud here in the evolution of smartphones. The gyroscope is one of the most useful pieces of hardware inside the phone, and it took Apple engineers immense skill to miniaturize it for the Apple 4.0 device. Over the years our picture-taking on phones has gotten a lot less shaky, and phones are better at detecting whether they are held in portrait or landscape mode. The gyroscope has literally set things straight and sowed the seeds for fitness trackers like the Fitbit and more recently, Apple Health apps.

In the transportation field the combination of gyroscope and accelerometer has been instrumental to the development of GPS navigation and its accuracy. You may have noticed that your Google and Apple maps provide different routing depending on whether you are on bicycle, on foot, or by car. This hard working chip is also critical for  the autonomous cars that are being tested today, and it has been rumored to be in the self-driving vehicle that Apple has been associated with. 

A Deeper Science:

I think it’s unfortunate, and you convey this in your query, that a technology that is so important and vital gets reported less as science news and more as a panacea for a rare, one-in- a million vehicle accident. And, it’s not fair to give Apple all the credit since gyroscopes have been essential to the development of the accurate and ubiquitous Google Map.

That said, there is one aspect of the gyroscope/accelerometer that is not being mentioned. When I looked at the literature, there were technical studies that report that changes in the air pressure can be used to “listen in” to conversations and spy on human dialogue. Although this sounds bizarre, remember how Alexander Graham conceived of the vibrating sound waves as a means to assist
the hearing impaired. Today, Google’s Android smartphones can  interpret ambient sound in addition to analyzing sensor and location data to make the determination on whether a crash has happened.

Whether they listen or not, there is one setting on smartphones that should not overlooked, whether we we are speeding in vehicles, hanging upside down on roller coasters, or doing other thrilling things. It’s the simple reset of a control in Settings to Airplane Mode. 

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