Cars, which are already rolling computers, have evolved into four-wheeled smart phones, handling data and voice communication for navigation, entertainment and communication.
That trend will accelerate with the advent of automated vehicles, which will require a constant stream of data to help maintain their routes and safely position themselves in traffic.
Automakers also want to be able to provide the latest updates for their vehiclesʼ operating software more readily than waiting for owners to bring them in for service.
Some believe the increasing volume of data could overburden existing wireless communication systems and degrade the ability of vehicles to receive it in areas with spotty network coverage.
Flat panel antenna
Enter Kymeta Corp., a technology company based in Redmond, Wash., which is in a USD $5 million partnership with Toyota Motor Corp. and Intelsat, a major satellite service provider, to develop satellite-based mobile connectivity that it claims is faster, more reliable and more secure than terrestrial networks.
Kymeta has been developing a software-based flat-panel antenna since 2013. It recently completed a field test of more than 24,000 kilometres (14,900 miles) across the U.S. aboard a Toyota 4Runner.
The octagonal-shaped device uses liquid-crystal technology instead of mechanical means to maintain an optimal link in a fast-moving vehicle. It is thin enough to fit in the roof of a car underneath the headliner.
Kymeta claims the antenna can handle up to one terabyte of data (a thousand gigabytes) a month, or more than a hundred full-length movies on DVD.
The use of satellites instead of earth-bound networks also put vehicles in range anywhere on the globe. LTE and 4G networks are fine in most of the U.S., southern Canada and much of Europe, but thin out in remote areas.
Kymeta CEO Dr. Nathan Kundtz pointed out whole parts of eastern Washington, the companyʼs home state, have no wireless coverage. Thatʼs also true in much of the developing world, where OEMs like Toyota see the most growth potential.
“They donʼt have the same kind of LTE coverage, terrestrial coverage, thatʼs available here and frankly itʼs very expensive to deploy that coverage,” Kundtz said in an interview.
That will be especially frustrating as automakers like Toyota move to deliver software updates wirelessly to their vehicles. Theyʼre unlikely to accept a two-tiered system where first-world customers with good network access get the most up-to-date software updates and services.
“And anyone who doesnʼt enjoy that doesnʼt get that,” said Kundtz. “Thatʼs not how a company like Toyota thinks about their customer base or how they want to serve their customer base, or the corporate profile they want to have.”
Toyota will not have exclusive use of Kymetaʼs technology but other OEMs so far seem not to be stampeding onto the satellite bandwagon.
A spokesman for Ford of Canada said 4G and WiFi meet its needs “in the foreseeable future,” though it is monitoring development of new technologies, including satellite connectivity.
It’s the same for General Motors.
Best solution so far
“We consider 4G LTE the best connectivity solution available and have the largest deployment in the industry with more than three million vehicles on the road today,” said Phil Abram, executive director of connectivity and infotainment for GM.
Kundtz is not fazed, saying Kymetaʼs had expressions of interest from many OEMs.
Technology consultant Thad Allen, who calls himself “agnostic” on satellite vs. terrestrial, said customers want infrastructure that delivers the best performance at the lowest cost.
Current systems can use a combination of GPS satellites and earthbound wireless networks to provide the all-important geo-location information (position, navigation and timing or PNT) crucial to staying connected.
Satellite approach is 'cost effective'
“Overall, at least in my view, you want assured PNT from whatever source you can get it, either space-based or terrestrial,” said Allen, vice-president of technology developer Booz Allen Hamilton, and a past commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Bill Marks, Kymetaʼs chief commercial officer, said satellite is the cost-effective approach because itʼs cheaper to set up in places without developed networks.
Satellite will eventually trump terrestrial because data transfer rates are comparable to the fastest home Internet connections, itʼs less vulnerable to hacking and has large swaths of unused frequency spectrum, he said.