The Disrupters: Kymeta in the race to handle connected car data

Next-generation mobile communications networks aren’t here yet but that hasn’t stopped the hype for 5G and its potential to facilitate the autonomous cars of tomorrow. While driverless cars must be able to operate safely without an internet connection but fluctuating traffic conditions are just one of the reasons why connectivity could be necessary.

“Part of that is monitoring the fleet and bringing information in from every vehicle out there,” said Nathan Kundtz, founder and CEO of Kymeta. “That way you can understand what kinds of environments those vehicles are finding and manage the edge cases, which are likely to be where autonomous vehicles start to break down.”

Kymeta, a start-up backed by Bill Gates and a number of investment firms, wants to ensure that automobiles have continuous access to the Internet, regardless of its level of autonomy. The company has developed a small, flat antenna that can be embedded inside the roof of a vehicle to provide persistent, high-speed Internet via satellite.

Said Kundtz: “If it can see the sky it can connect you to the Internet. We access high throughput satellites using an interface that has historically required a dish but we replaced it with a flat panel.”

Kundtz argued that mobile technology, which is unreliable in some locations and not available in others, would not be able to deliver the amount of data needed for next-generation automobiles. “The value of having this type of system in a high-end internet application is when you’re outside of cellular connectivity,” said Kundtz. “We see a lot of enthusiasm in the market about that. We’ve done a bunch of testing in England and we found that when you get 20 minutes outside of London the networks are spotty at best. You can imagine what it’d be like to work remotely in that kind of an environment, let alone get into more rural or developing country-type environments.”

Gigabytes today, terabytes tomorrow

If you think smartphones are data hogs, consider how much information will be needed for infotainment, mapping and autonomous technology. “We’re already working on data plans that will be upwards of a terabyte a month,” said Kundtz. The company has partnered with Intelsat to provide satellite service to its customers. Looking ahead to the distant future, Kundtz sees a future where autonomous car passengers are eagerly downloading any form of entertainment imaginable. Today it’s movies at a few gigabytes each – tomorrow it could be an Xbox or PlayStation video game with much larger file sizes.

Kundtz said there isn’t currently a vehicle connectivity solution that can provide that much data at any price, let alone one that reflects consumer demand. He wouldn’t say how much a terabyte plan would cost but he differentiated between data for autonomy and data for other purposes.

He said: “We’re not planning to charge consumers a separate fee for data in an autonomous car. We see that constant connection is something that’s going to be built into the price of the vehicle and, frankly, using satellites to provide this massive data makes it a very cost-effective decision.”

Self-driving needs

Current automobiles contain huge amounts of data code, some reaching or exceeding 100 million. That number is expected to increase dramatically as cars become more autonomous, which could pose new challenges for automakers. “Every piece of software in an autonomous car is safety-critical,” said Kundtz. “Anytime you write large pieces of complex software you have bugs. It’s not a situation where you can ask the car to come into the dealership in order to get a software update, as we do today. It’s going to be very important to be able to manage those bugs securely and provide real-time updates on a regular basis. Otherwise catastrophic events can happen.”

There are a lot of concerns surrounding the security of connected cars, including those that are still driven by humans. Cellular connectivity offers yet another access point that, if exploited, could be used to influence the vehicle and cause an unintended action.

Kundtz warned: “When you’re that deeply connected and dependent upon a network that has millions of access points, you have natural limitations in terms of the amount of security you can provide. In a cellular network, not every connection goes all the way back to a hub somewhere. They try to keep those connections at the edge of the network, which means it’s much easier to hack that kind of environment.”

While the real innovations may be years away, Kundtz expects in-car connectivity to initially prove itself by improving upon the most basic components. “It might sound boring but just having regular updates to the software in your car makes it safer, makes it drive better, gives it better gas mileage,” he said. “Getting regular updates to maps, even before the car is autonomous, makes the experience of driving more seamless.”


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