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Connectivity Challenges the Car: A Satellite Solution?

There’s no stopping the Internet-connected car. BI Intelligence predicts that three out of four cars shipped in 2020 will be connected and other analysts have forecast even higher numbers. This is against a backdrop of a significant number of already delivered vehicles with connectivity — Gartner estimated our roads will have a quarter billion connected cars within two years. Everyone involved throughout the entire automotive ecosystem appears to have a hand in driving this surge in connectivity: Consumers want car apps, updated navigation, and streaming music; automakers want to provide remote updates and collect data on their car's performance and usage; and third parties (like insurance companies) want driver analytics to offer new services.

Automotive-Telecoms Disconnect

As you might expect, delivering the connected car comes with its fair share of challenges. One of these is the disjointed lifecycle between automotive and telecoms technology. Cars take more than three years to design and are generally kept in service for 11 years on average. Unfortunately, the cell technology on which car connectivity depends is not sitting still. Each time a new generation of wireless communication is rolled out, rapid consumer device adoption quickly displaces older devices on the network, which in turn compels carriers to discontinue older protocols soon after a new standard is in place. This strands a huge number of connected vehicles that were built using older standards — something all automakers struggle to manage. To make matters more challenging, the current 5G gold rush will likely widen this automotive-telecoms gap as carriers madly dash to support new Internet of Things (IOT) use cases.

Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities

Another significant connected car challenge that has been rearing its ugly head over the last several years is cybersecurity vulnerabilities. As the car grows dependent on connectivity, it becomes an increasingly attractive target for nefarious agents looking to remotely profit from its misuse. As the automotive industry has realized the potential impact of its exposure, the need to provide cars with cybersecurity protection has moved from the academic realm to practical applications in very short order. However, the car's complex computing environment makes cybersecurity protection an ever-evolving target. Periodically updating the car firmware to shore up cybersecurity defenses is necessary to create a stronger, more maintainable defensive wall, but this simultaneously opens up the car to remotely downloadable vehicle viruses and malware.

Here's the good news ¬— satellite communications may be able to help with these two significant car connectivity issues.

Long Lifespans and Large Downlink Capability

Satellite lifespans, which are long enough to provide stability to the car's connectivity, are extremely helpful to automakers. Not having to design for new communication standards, to upgrade units in the field, or to source different hardware parts makes the job of designing for the extended vehicle life that much easier. While satellites aren't necessarily the best channel for all car communications, their large downlink capacity supports very common activities like music streaming, map downloads, or firmware updates that are broadcast in nature and consume large amounts of data. However, there is still a need for types of car communication that aren’t ideally suited to satellites. Using consumer phones — something that can be easily replaced as the network evolves — and a Bluetooth link in combination with satellites to support massive downloads can solve most of the needs of the connected car.

Other Satellite Benefits

Similarly, satellites have an edge in providing cybersecure car connections. For starters, satellite communications are considered more secure than cellular. Hackers who want to tinker with satellite communications need equipment that is more expensive, sophisticated, and scarce than the tools used to decode mobile phone traffic. As well, the complex knowledge needed to understand satellite data streams is not as widespread as more commonly available cell communication information. In many cases, the details may be proprietary or classified, requiring the difficult task of reverse engineering satellite traffic to understand its weaknesses. And physical access to the satellite infrastructure is impossible for all practical purposes, completely avoiding the class of attacks that require hands-on access. Because the majority of satellites have redundancy systems in place to ensure constant uptime, they are harder to control or subvert. Satellite-based communication does provide one drawback — it provides a broader scope of targets if a hack should be successful — but the positive security benefits greatly outweigh this single consideration.

Satellite-to-car communications has other positive aspects like geographic reach and service consistency. Will the next generation of vehicles turn to satellite providers for vehicle connectivity solutions? Maybe it's an idea that's not too far off.