Robust Satellite Connectivity Vital for Future Mobility

Data compression and military-grade satellite connectivity are essential to coming mobility technologies, says Volkswagen’s Frank Weith.

Louis Bedigian

December 12, 2023

4 Min Read
Ford Blue Cruise
Uninterrupted connectivity and data compression are vital future components.

For all the talk of transferring data and the associated expenses, it would be easy to assume that the auto industry is already generating too much information.

It’s true that the industry’s data needs are increasing, even as unanticipated hiccups have hindered – and in some instances, may halt – the development of autonomous vehicles. With or without self-driving cars, data is a hot commodity but it’s not so hot that automakers are collectively overwhelmed.

How much data is actually being transferred then? Not all automakers are willing to share their numbers, but Frank Weith, director of connected and mobility services at Volkswagen Group of America, offers some revealing insights. He estimates that, on an annual per-vehicle basis, between 500 megabytes and 1 gigabyte of data is pushed through Volkswagen’s B2B channel.

This data includes information on how the vehicle performs in the field and is separate from any data resulting from a car’s infotainment system. Regardless, 1GB is a particularly modest amount compared to the terabytes of data that many have predicted cars will generate and transfer. Navigation info and other data come into the vehicle, but Weith indicates it’s not a significant amount.

“That’s because compression technology has made it so efficient,” he says. “When we start collecting road experience data, that number is obviously going to increase. As the sensors start giving us more information, I think we’ll see exponential growth but I think we’re three to five years away from that.”

At that point, one of the current challenges, such as how to best address memory and processing limitations as the industry quickly evolves, may become more pronounced. “That’s why I think edge computing will alleviate some of that,” Weith adds. “And take some of that processing power and memory offboard, bring it to the edge, do a lot of heavy lifting and put it back into the car.”

Satellites Are Critical

Autonomous technology continues to be the primary driver for persistent in-car connectivity, but there are likely to be other use cases that demand an equal level of reliability. While 5G cellular towers continue to spread throughout the world, especially in the U.S., white spots (areas without connectivity) remain and it may be impossible to get rid of them entirely.

Therefore, Weith believes satellite technology, used intermittently when cellular service is not available, may be the only way to eliminate gaps in connectivity. However, he cautions there are growth and reliability issues that need to be resolved before automotive-grade satellites will be possible.

“I want to say there will be satellite connectivity,” says Weith. “It all boils down to that channel – how robust it is to say, ‘They can drive cars autonomously.’ But if you look at the military sector and reliability in that, I imagine the technology will find its way to the consumer side and it could be faster than you think.”

In the meantime, Weith notes existing in-vehicle connectivity has made improvements with an antenna that is more powerful and provides more consistent internet access than the antennas used in mobile devices. “Most people don’t know that we power the antenna on the roof,” Weith explains. “That’s not really talked about, but it’s one of the major benefits of Wi-Fi in the car. Now, when you’re driving down I-75 you’re still connected.”

He shares an example in which he was driving with his wife, who was able to work during their commute using the in-car Wi-Fi hotspot. Her in-car connectivity remained strong even when their phones struggled to reach the cellular infrastructure. “As content becomes more relevant in the car, that robustness becomes more important, and I think the cell devices themselves can’t compete against that,” Weith affirms.

Device-less Connectivity

Modern automobiles have made it fairly easy for drivers and passengers to bring their phones into the car, allowing for greater functionality than cars currently can offer on their own. From streaming music and navigation to mobile payments and beyond, automobiles almost have become an extension of a typical mobile device.

But with cloud technology eliminating the need for physical devices to be present at all times, do we really need them in the car any longer? Weith envisions a more streamlined experience for the future. He doesn’t think it should be necessary to physically plug in or wirelessly connect a device.

“Theoretically, we should design it so that if you leave your phone at home you’re going to get the same functions as if you had it with you,” Weith says. “I see the next evolution there in being able to create that cloud environment for customers to bring content in and out without having to bring in the device itself.”

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