General Motors and Ford Motor Co. recently announced some enhancements to their in-vehicle communications systems for this fall that are designed to improve access to 911 services, the two automakers said in separate announcements last month at the National Emergency Number Association annual conference in Tampa.

For Ford, the 911 Assist feature is the first public-safety-oriented application added to the Microsoft SYNC system, which previously was leveraged for entertainment and informational uses in vehicles about a year ago, said David Hatton, an electrical engineer and program analyst for Ford.

With 911 Assist — standard with any SYNC package beginning this fall — a Bluetooth-paired cell phone in the car automatically dials 911 when an accident occurs that activates an air bag or the emergency fuel cutoff. The passengers then can talk directly with a 911 call-taker via the vehicle's hands-free audio system.

Although only one cell phone can make a call at a time, the fact that as many as 12 cell phones can be paired with a vehicle's SYNC system can provide beneficial flexibility if the primary paired phone is damaged during an accident, Hatton said. “SYNC will try to go to the last previously connected phone,” he said. “If it can't find that phone, it will go down its list of paired phones and will try to repeat the process on a different phone.”

In an effort to reduce unnecessary calls to 911, the 911 Assist system provides a 10-second window that allows a user to cancel a call, Hatton said. In addition, if multiple phones are paired in the vehicle, only one 911 call will be made to avoid duplication, he said.

Because it leverages the user's cellular phone service, SYNC and 911 Assist do not require a monthly subscription fee — SYNC is standard in some vehicles and a $395 option in others — and coverage is based on the availability of the user's cellular phone network, Hatton said. Owners of vehicles with the previous version of SYNC will be able to add the 911 Assist feature to their systems by visiting a dealership, he said.

While Ford's SYNC system connects an emergency caller directly to a 911 call-taker, General Motors' OnStar system has long connected callers to public-safety answering points (PSAPs) via its call centers. This fall, OnStar will introduce a feature that will provide its customers access to 911 at a most critical time — when their cars are stolen.

Many stolen cars subsequently are involved in high-speed chases that result in 300 deaths per year — most of them innocent bystanders. With this in mind, General Motors' 2009 model vehicles will include a new remote-slowdown feature that is designed to prevent such tragedies.

After an OnStar-equipped vehicle is reported stolen, OnStar can remotely disable the vehicle's ability to accelerate, allowing authorities to easily secure the idled car and perpetrator.

“It feels like you just ran out of gas, and it coasts to a stop,” said Fritz Beiermeister, executive director for business sales and marketing for OnStar, noting that braking and steering mechanisms on the vehicle are not affected.

OnStar has established conditions that must exist before the slowdown feature is executed, Beiermeister said. Law enforcement must confirm that the vehicle is considered stolen and be able to see that the car is in an area that is safe for such deceleration to occur, he said.

Unlike Ford's SYNC, OnStar — a subscription service — does not require a passenger to have a working cellular phone because the vehicle is connected through the Verizon Wireless network.

After a crash, OnStar automatically receives information such as whether an air bag deployed, whether the vehicle rolled over and the vehicle's velocity at impact, said George Baker, public-policy manager for OnStar.

“That comes to you verbally currently, but the vision is to transmit it directly to [911 call-takers and dispatchers] electronically,” Baker said.