Staying Connected, Updated and Safe on the Road

By Andrew Faiola, Director, Europe, Middle East, and Asia Mobility Sales, Intelsat

Many mobile communications networks are widespread and reliable enough that you can drive just about anywhere the road is paved without losing the connection needed to make a phone call or send a text. And if the signal fades or disappears while on the move, you can be sure another tower is not too far away. That’s fine for a mobile phone. But losing the signal could be a serious problem for passengers riding in connected cars and autonomous vehicles.

The global auto industry has been moving steadily toward the connected car – and experimenting with self-driving technology – for several years and is producing vehicles with ever-more capable autonomous systems. Toyota’s recent announcement that it will invest nearly $3 billion to set up a subsidiary exclusively devoted to developing software for autonomous vehicles is only the latest from a global industry competing for leadership in self-driving cars and trucks.

While today’s experimental autonomous vehicles use a number of on-board sensors to operate safely in traffic, they also rely on over-the-air communications to receive information about road conditions and precise mapping. If we are not to create a new digital divide between urban and rural populations, companies, such as Toyota, will need satellite technology interwoven with terrestrial networks to provide the continuous bandwidth necessary to safely operate an automobile.

While cars have been connected to satellites for more than a decade for streaming radio and global positioning information, the early thinking about the fully connected car was that terrestrial networks would be the only means able to provide the required bandwidth. That view has evolved as vehicles have become software platforms that require regular updates, and the realization that the most robust terrestrial networks only work well in urban settings. Since 2015, vehicle recalls have increased 46%, and close to one-third of those could have been addressed over the air, without visits to the dealership that are costly to the automakers and inconvenient for their customers.

For example, even relatively small, densely populated countries like the United Kingdom have areas where cellular networks could not possibly provide the coverage required to fully support connected or autonomous vehicles. Recent studies have found that just under half of all roads in the United Kingdom have at least 3G cellular coverage, and less than one quarter have 4G coverage. But even the most advanced 4G networks will not meet the demands of connected vehicles as their numbers explode.

The creation of hybrid satellite-terrestrial networks has become a major focus of automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), mobile network providers and satellite operators. The mobile industry has recently adopted standards for evolved packet core (EPC) networks that enable seamless roaming between cellular and satellite connections, and the European Parliament’s view on C-ITS is that it should include satellite in a hybrid approach. The 3GPP international cellular standards group also has completed work on the initial cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) standard. Because of the three-to-four-year lead time required to design and build a car, such standards are critical to give OEMs time to create the platforms that support such networks.

Such robust and reliable connectivity is important for OEMs for another reason that has nothing to do with autonomous vehicles. The latest model cars are essentially computers with engines, with electronic components that process up to 25 gigabytes of data per hour. Everything from headlight operation to exhaust emissions depends on software. To cut down on the number of recalls that result from software glitches, BMW, Ford and a few other manufacturers have begun doing software and firmware updates over-the-air using Wi-Fi networks when the cars are parked near wireless routers.

Satellites are ideally suited for integration into terrestrial networks as they round out the ability to augment coverage ubiquitously, whether direct to the vehicle or by helping to extend the terrestrial network. Their unique capability to broadcast signals over wide areas enables companies like Toyota or Cadillac to securely send software updates that are specific to car models in different parts of the world. This also helps MNOs balance the traffic on their network in order to raise the quality of service for Vehicle-to-Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure communications that are critical in an autonomous vehicle environment.

The next step in the evolution toward connected and autonomous vehicles is for satellite and terrestrial operators to agree on hybrid network specifications so that OEMs can build the right types of antennas and modems into their vehicles of the future. We at Intelsat are working with a number of companies on setting such standards and creating the antenna platforms that will support the new transportation era. Having network providers and OEMs work together now is vital so that the cars coming off the assembly line in a few years will have the connectivity required for safe and reliable operation.

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