The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern recently traveled to Michigan to test Apple’s new crash detection feature on the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Ultra. In response, Apple provided some additional information about how the feature works.
Stern recruited Michael Barabe to crash his demolition derby car with a heavy-duty steel frame into two unoccupied vehicles parked in a junkyard — a 2003 Ford Taurus and a 2008 Dodge Caravan. The results were mixed, with the iPhone and Apple Watch only detecting some of the crashes, which Apple said was the result of the testing conditions in the junkyard failing to provide enough “signals” to trigger the feature every time.
When I contacted Apple with the results, a company spokesman said that the testing conditions in the junkyard didn’t provide enough signals to the iPhone to trigger the feature in the stopped cars. It wasn’t connected to Bluetooth or CarPlay, which would have indicated the car was in use, and the vehicles might not have traveled enough distance prior to the crash to indicate driving. Had the iPhone received those extra indicators—and had its GPS shown the cars were on a real road—the likelihood of an alert would have been greater, he said.
Apple says its crash detection feature relies on “advanced Apple-designed motion algorithms trained with over a million hours of real-world driving and crash record data.” Stern outlined the various hardware sensors and software algorithms that assist with detecting a crash on supported iPhone and Apple Watch models:
• Motion sensors: All the devices have a three-axis gyroscope and high-g force accelerometer, which samples motion more than 3,000 times a second. It means the devices can detect the exact moment of impact and any change in motion or trajectory of the vehicle.
• Microphones: The mics are used to detect loud sound levels that might indicate a crash. The microphones are only turned on when driving is detected, and no actual sound is recorded, Apple says.
• Barometer: If the air bags deploy when the windows are closed, the barometer can detect a change in air pressure.
• GPS: Readings can be used to detect speeds prior to a crash and any sudden lack of movement, as well as inform the device that it’s traveling on a road.
• CarPlay and Bluetooth: When connected, these give the algorithms another signal that the phone is on board a car, so it knows to look out for a crash.
Crash detection is enabled by default on the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, iPhone 14 Pro Max, Apple Watch Series 8, second-generation Apple Watch SE, and Apple Watch Ultra. The feature can be found in the Settings app under Emergency SOS → Call After Severe Crash and is not available on older iPhone and Apple Watch models.
Apple’s website says that the crash detection feature is designed to detect “severe” car crashes, such as “front-impact, side-impact, and rear-end collisions, and rollovers” involving “sedans, minivans, SUVs, pickup trucks, and other passenger cars.” Apple warns that the feature “cannot detect all car crashes,” so it is not failproof.
When a severe car crash is detected, a supported iPhone or Apple Watch displays an alert and sounds an alarm, according to Apple. If a user is able, they can call emergency services by swiping the Emergency Call slider on the iPhone or Apple Watch, or dismiss the alert. If they do not respond to the alert after 10 seconds, the device begins another 10-second countdown. If they still haven’t responded, the device calls emergency services.
Apple says if a severe car crash is detected, users will interact with the Apple Watch if they are wearing one. Otherwise, users interact with the iPhone.
All in all, while Stern said her test was not exactly scientific, it is reassuring that the feature detected some of the crashes. However, tests involving stationary vehicles in a controlled environment can never truly replicate an on-street collision.