Advanced vehicle antennas will enable high-throughput satellite connections

By Mark Rasmussen, Vice President & General Manager, Mobility

New cars have been equipped with satellite antennas since the early 2000s, when both satellite radio and GPS navigation first became widely available to motorists. But those automotive antennas, typically a shark-fin shaped appendage on the rear of the roof, are small and capable of receiving only the low-bandwidth transmissions from GPS or Sirius XM satellites. In the next few years, we will see a dramatic change in the types of antennas built into new cars, as manufacturers begin to take advantage of a revolution in both antenna technology and the power of a new generation of high-throughput satellites such as Intelsat’s EpicNG constellation.

Car manufacturers and their suppliers are just beginning to explore the range of content and new applications that could be delivered to the vehicles through these new antennas. These could include everything from vehicle software updates to high-definition video, mobile phone connections in remote areas, and mapping for autonomous driving.

One of the primary advantages of being able to stream high-bandwidth signals to cars and trucks will be the ability of manufacturers to update vehicle software and firmware via satellite instead of requiring owners to visit a dealership where technicians update vehicles one at a time. Since the mid-1990s, computer-based electronic control units have replaced many of the mechanical and pneumatic control systems in cars and trucks, resulting in millions of lines of software code that need to be managed and sometimes updated. With this increased use, software recalls have also increased – from 5% in 2011 to 15% in 2016.

This is where the economic benefit of using satellite becomes so attractive. Eliminating the need to make these updates to cars individually in dealerships will save time for the owners. And auto manufacturers will save millions of dollars a year by being able to do mass updates via satellite. With the availability of an HTS network built as a global infrastructure, and covering 99% of the world’s populated geographies, original equipment manufacturers need not navigate the hundreds of wireless network operators of the world. Instead they can define and execute upgrades across a single, homogeneous global platform. This saves time, money and design cycles.

Another important consideration will be the security of the networks able to access the cars and make software changes. A motorist given notice that the brake system on his or her car is about to be updated will want to know that the change has come from the right source and has not been tampered with. Rather than work with hundreds of cellular providers around the world to manage automotive software, we believe manufacturers will be attracted to the security and reliability of a single satellite network.

The new generation of antennas is small, flat panels developed by Intelsat partner Kymeta and others. They have the same send-and-receive capability of a small VSAT dish without the bulk and the weight. The flat antennas will typically be installed between the headliner and the roof of a vehicle, invisible to the owner yet capable of sending and receiving information virtually anywhere outside of a closed garage if the car’s ignition switch is turned on. The antennas will take advantage of the power of a satellite to multi-cast information, rather than making the updates one at a time over terrestrial cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

In addition to SOTA and FOTA updates, the satellite antenna will enable the rapid two-way communications between the car and the cloud server maintained by the OEM, allowing the driver to select from a menu of services.

One item on that menu might be allowing the owner to alter the performance characteristics of a car by modifying the software. For example, perhaps a motorist would want to order up “track performance” setting while driving through a winding mountain road on a weekend, but change back to “fuel economy” mode when back home commuting to work. Or maybe a pickup owner would change the vehicle’s torque characteristics when towing a trailer.

Other menu items could be a range of “infotainment” such as streaming music, video from providers such as Netflix, and high-speed broadband. Passengers would have numerous entertainment options either on screens inside the vehicle or on portable devices they brought along for the trip.

One of the issues being worked out among OEMs and content providers is who will control the relationship with the car owner. For example, will Ford or General Motors develop their own content streaming services (as Tesla said it plans to do) or use a third-party service such as Pandora or Apple Music?

While the high-throughput satellites that can support these services have been launched, the antennas are just coming to market, so we won’t see some of these services until around the 2021-2022 model years. But then the technology will take off rapidly. Some manufacturers, such as Tesla, BMW and Volvo, are already using some of the software update capabilities using Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Satellite connections will likely complement these services for some applications, but satellite will be the only type of connectivity for OEMs to make mass updates to vehicles spread across wide geographic areas.

This can sound very futuristic, to be sure, but the auto industry is moving forward aggressively with its plans to connect our cars. Pondering the potential changes and their impact on manufacturers and dealers and drivers and repair shops and others related to the automobile economy, one can only conclude that we have an exciting future ahead.

 

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