On Tuesday, Toyota showed off its new vehicle, the alternative-fuel Mirai, which was equipped with advanced satellite technology at the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Toyota has invested $5 million in Kymeta, a satellite company, to expedite the development of a flat-panel antennas that will be built into the roof of the vehicles. Using this technology will become increasingly important at the dawn of the self-driving car era, where collecting and disseminating data will be critical to safely operating these new vehicles.
According to Håkan Olsson, a representative for Kymeta, cars today are already equipped with hundreds of central processing units. They all use software, and the software needs to be updated. What satellite technology can do is streamline the process by broadcasting software upgrades that reach all cars in the entire world at the same time. This is a big improvement over land-based connectivity solutions, such as cellular connections, which can only work in specific regions. Especially when it comes to autonomous cars, says Olsson, where "it's all hinged on getting data to the car and gathering data," the speed of satellite is the best way to get a large amount of data transferred.
"It's a complete game-changer," said Olsson.
Why? For one, it has the ability to provide worldwide coverage. Also, it will offer much higher bandwidth. Sirius XM, an example of satellite technology in cars today, provides a speed of 128 kilobits per second. "It's similar to a dial-up connection from the early '90s," said Olsson, and is receiving-only. But at the Detroit Auto Show, Kymeta's technology got up to 50 megabits per second, which can include sending and receiving.
The broadband connection will also provide higher security. That's because it's very difficult to breach security between the uplink facility, the satellite, and the vehicle, said Olsson.
Finally, the price point is expected to be much lower. "The ability of the satellite to multicast to millions of vehicles simultaneously makes the cost per vehicle significantly lower," said Olsson. "In an LTE system where each GB has to be unicast, the cost can be very high."
Here are some other advantages of using the satellite technology, according to Kymeta:
- Convenient, quick, and easy software updates to the vehicle, and up-to-date maps and telematics
- The ability to communicate with first responders and call for help if the airbags deploy, or in the event of an emergency
- Delivering high-definition content, such as movies and music, directly to vehicles
- Service packages such as Skype calling, gaming, and broadcasting video feeds directly from the vehicle
According to Olsson, the technology, still in development, will be ready in the next year, and there's no definite timeline for when it will be available in vehicles. But he thinks they're already way ahead of the game. And while the new technology was being displayed only in the Mirai model during the show, Toyota's goal is to get the antennas into as many cars as possible. They've already tested a fully-functional antenna system built into the roof of a Toyota 4Runner.
"Toyota is forward-looking; they're interested in future-proofing their cars," said Olsson.
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.