Satellite Providers Claim to Close Cellular Connectivity Gaps

The future of the connected car is orbiting in space. At least, that’s what proponents of satellite technology espouse.

Satellite, of course, is the backbone of the GPS technology that constantly updates the digital maps that guide our cars. It also beams down music, talk, and sports broadcasting in the form of satellite radio. However, the believers feel the technology can be so much more. In fact, they argue that the wider implementation of satellite will be essential to the functioning of connected, and ultimately self-driving, vehicles – no matter where they may be prowling.

“As the use of autonomous cars grows and begins to spread outside of urban areas, the networks they rely on for all of the information they need to operate will have to involve satellites,” said Mark Rasmussen, vice-president and general manager, mobility, of satellite services provider Intelsat.

Outside of mapping and radio, a great many functionalities in the connected car are run on cellular networks. Rasmussen argues that this has notable drawbacks. “Cellular technology is established, especially in urban areas but despite operators forging roaming agreements and meeting coverage obligations, cars continually move in and out of cellular coverage, encountering ‘not spots’ and variable bandwidth rates across 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Even the most advanced 4G networks are limited in the amount of content they can consistently deliver.”

With that in mind, more than a few manufacturers are taking a ride to Satellite City. One is Toyota, which since 2013 has been collaborating with satellite terminal manufacturer Kymeta on research into the technology. The Japanese auto giant is also putting its money where its mouth is, with a $5M investment in the company via one of its subsidiaries. Kymeta makes flat-panel receivers, which it says can be integrated effectively into a car’s body. Toyota has tested them on the Mirai, its hydrogen-powered line that seems to serve as a workbench for future technologies.

However, another area where satellite could make life much easier for both manufacturers and consumers is in software updates. Today’s connected car uses many millions of lines of computer code, in programs that need to be updated on at least a semi-regular basis. It isn’t practical to push these updates via cellular or insist that a car owner bring their baby into the shop to receive them.

“For car manufacturers, updating vehicle software via satellite will save millions of dollars in vehicle recalls because they won’t have to fix the cars one at a time in dealerships,” says Rasmussen. “Companies estimate that between 60% and 70% of vehicle recalls are the result of software issues. Eliminating the need to make these updates individually in dealerships also will save time for the owners.”

In fact, according to Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association, some of the carmakers exploring satellite are currently on the case. “Automobile companies already are working with satellite companies to download software updates because their coverage is so much more ubiquitous than terrestrial wireless systems,” he said.

Of course, there’s another crucial functionality that needs more frequent data refreshing. “In addition to the need for accurate tracking of location, which will be done via satellite, the mapping capabilities in these vehicles are expected to need to be updated immediately as new roads are built, detours are required, etc.,” Stroup said. “While much can be done with in vehicle sensing, autonomous vehicles will need up to date data on roads.”

So, if the conditions are ripe and the boost from satellite tech is needed for reliable connected or autonomous vehicle operation, why hasn’t this happened yet? One big consideration is money; satellite networks are expensive to deploy and maintain, while receiving technology hasn’t entirely become affordable for carmakers.

As a result, says Alan Crisp, senior analyst at satellite and space industry research firm NSR, cellular technology dominates and might very well continue to do so. “The reliability of cellular connectivity is good enough for most use cases today and availability is already widespread, without having to incorporate highly priced satellite flat panel antennae,” he said. “Further, the technology is already here, so for most use cases cellular will be a technology of choice.”

“I feel that satellite will remain a niche in the connected car – for those with extreme reliability requirements,” Crisp continued. “It’s possible that satellite may become mainstream for the autonomous vehicle due to these requirements but the technology is far from settled and few consumer vehicles drive outside of terrestrial networks today.”

It should be said here that for all cellular connectivity’s patchy coverage, satellite, too, is prone to huge gaps in service notably in the skyscraper canyons of many large cities where GPS information can be lost completely and normally when it is needed most. This may be annoying for satellite navigation users today but potentially catastrophic in a future autonomous vehicle too heavily reliant on either cellular or satellite connectivity. This probably explains the European Union’s latest moves backing dedicated short-range communications along with the two biggest carmakers, Toyota and Volkswagen.

However, many satellite true believers feel we can’t drive to the upper levels of autonomy without at least a blend of their technology and cellular. “Deeper integration between terrestrial and satellite networks will allow seamless handovers that provide consistent network quality and reliability…” says Rasmussen, “and this hybrid approach will address the challenges of global reach, consistent reliability and cost efficiency in delivering these services.”

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