Embedded telematics and the art of future-proofing

Embedded telematics and the art of future-proofing

Imagine buying a new car and after driving it for only a couple years, you take it in for a new set of tires, only to be told the kind your car needs is no longer made, and even though it still runs like a champ, the time has come to take it to the junkyard. Sound absurd? Sure.

But two years from now, something very similar will happen to millions of connected drivers when AT&T and Verizon start shutting down their 2G networks in the United States to free up spectrum for 4G LTE and other data traffic.

There is nothing OEMs can do about it, either, other than say it's not their fault, which is, of course, true. But explain that to their customers.

When Verizon, in 2008, turned off its analog networks to go digital, leaving roughly three quarters of a million users of the first-generation OnStar telematics suite without connectivity, lawsuits flew.

The nature of incompatibility

The essential problem with embedded telematics is that it comes from the pairing of two largely incompatible beasts: the wireless and automotive industries.

The wireless industry develops products at breakneck speed, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Not quite seven years have passed since the first iPhone hit the market in 2007, but it is already in its seventh generation. The iPad is in its fifth generation after only four years. By comparison, the automotive industry plods along, as it has been doing for decades, putting out new models every year and spending three to five years developing each one.

Prior to the advent of telematics, none of this was a problem. But now, with connectivity playing an ever-increasing role within the automotive space, the carmakers’ lengthy product cycles virtually guarantee that whatever cutting-edge telematics technology gets designed for a particular car model, it will be approaching obsolescence by the time the car reaches the showroom.

With telematics, as with most of everything else, there is no stopping the future. Still, there are a few things OEMs and their suppliers can do to future-proof their systems.

When it comes to future-proofing embedded telematics, there are two basic schools of thought.

One says that when an embedded system is being designed, rather than match its processing power and storage capacity to current requirements, designers should look ahead and install the most powerful processors and memory chips available, so there is plenty to work with when it comes to software upgrades.

The other school of thought argues that since it is difficult to forecast future system requirements, telematics hardware should be modularized, so it’s easy to replace – just like tires or wiper blades, one should assume telematics hardware will need to be replaced two or three times during the course of the vehicle's service life.

The redundancy approach

“When you say 'future-proofing,' there are many flavors of it, say Egil Juliussen, principal analyst, infotainment and ADAS, IHS Automotive. “You can future-proof the communications links, the hardware and the software; three things.”

Juliussen supports the first school of thought of future-proofing.

When it comes to future-proofing the connected car’s communications channel, nothing less than a 4G LTE modem will do today, he says. “The 2G has been around for a long time,” he says. “We've known that the shutdown is going to happen. The frequency spectrum that's being used by it, it's very valuable. The MNOs want to put their 4G LTE in that frequency spectrum, and so they've got to shut down the 2G. That's going to come fairly soon. The 3G will probably last longer. So today, essentially in order to future-proof, you need to go to LTE for your telematics system. You don't really need the bandwidth or the speed, but for future-proofing, you must do that. At least that's our opinion.”

Regarding other parts of telematics hardware, Juliussen believes that since it'll usually be three years between the time a particular telematics system is designed and when it is fielded, OEMs need to splurge, not scrimp.

“At that point in time, you really don't know how much microprocessor performance and memory you're going to need; the software hasn’t been designed,” he says. “What I recommend whenever I give presentations on this is to spend an extra dollar and get a microprocessor that's twice as fast as what you're planning on. Then you have room for when the software grows that you didn't think was going to. Getting more hardware capability than you planned for is a very good idea.”

Juliussen also believes that bulking up lots of extra flash and RAM memory is also a good, cheap form of insurance, particularly at the prospect of over-the-air software upgrading becoming standard procedure within two to five years.

“Those things go hand-in-hand, in my opinion, that you do the microprocessor, and you do some extra RAM too, where the program runs when its executing and then there's the flash memory where the program is stored and the beta is stored that you don't use,” he says. “So if you do those three things, literally, if you spend a couple of extra dollars, you will be way ahead of the competitors.”

The modular approach

The idea of building embedded telematics systems as removable modules is also beginning to take, according to John Horn, vice president of RacoWireless.

Horn says he's been talking to carmakers for five years about the need to start using swappable, modularized telematics hardware for their embedded units.  He says that judging from their response, “you'd swear, I was speaking Klingon.”

“Now, however, they are starting to listen, to look at it like it could be an issue,” he says. “The challenge is that the automotive industry and wireless industry will never move on the same product cycle, ever. If you deal with it by having a removable module that can be upgraded, you can always have the latest wireless technology in your car. It's the only solution.”

(In essence, an embedded telematics system taking its processing power from a tethered smartphone is an example of such a modular approach. However, this story focuses on future-proofing telematics components that are baked into the vehicle during production.)

The problem is, however, that the OEMs, never being entirely comfortable with telematics, can't really express how they want to proceed.

“It's like the auto industry wants the wireless industry to come up with a solution so that it will always work, and it just can't happen,” Horn adds. “Every time you come up with a new generation that is using the spectrum, they need to use the spectrum that's being used for the old technology. … We're talking finite things, not vaporware.”

Still today, it’s easier to remove an entire car engine from a car than it is to remove an embedded telematics unit. “If think if they (the OEMs) came up with a standardized footprint and how the modules go and how you access them, it would all become very simple,” he says. “Again, we go back to tires and windshield wipers. All these things can be replaced. Why? Because they wear out, and their usefulness is done.”

If Horn has his way, telematics will be in the same category.

Brendan McNally is a regular contributor to Telematics Update.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Advanced Automotive Safety USA 2014 on July 8-9 in Novi, Michigan, Insurance Telematics USA 2014 on Sept. 3-4 in Chicago, Telematics Japan 2014 in October in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2014 on Nov. 10-11 in Munich, Germany, and The Open Mobile Summit on Nov. 10-11 in San Francisco.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Insurance Telematics Report 2014Connected Fleet Report 2014The Automotive HMI Report 2013 and Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013.   

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