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The Connected Car and Where Satellite Fits In

A review of the key automotive applications for satellite connectivity.

Automotive telematics pioneers harking back 20 years to tinkerers at Volvo Cars saw a hybrid cellular-satellite connectivity proposition as the ideal connectivity solution. Volvo learned the hard way, at that time, that the satellite industry is a fickle partner and potentially expensive. Volvo’s partner at that time was Orbcomm, before its Chapter 11 bankruptcy — a filing that scotched Volvo’s plans.

The dream of hybrid sat-cell connectivity in moving vehicles lives on in the commercial vehicle space with satellite connections providing tracking and some communications capability and cellular providing dispatching and emergency coms. The applications for satellite connections have expanded as the variety of satellite players has grown and interest in the automotive market has increased.

Today, the key automotive applications for satellite connectivity include: tracking, location, emergency response, content delivery (entertainment), and over-the-air software updates. The players lining up include: Intelsat, Inmarsat, Ligado, SiriusXM, and Pivotal Commware.

Location and Tracking

Tracking and location are essential low-bandwidth applications for satellite technology in moving vehicles. While cellular-based telematics systems got their start with OnStar’s automatic crash notification, cellular coverage is notoriously incomplete and unreliable for locating vehicles in all circumstances — particularly in an emergency response scenario.

Only satellite technology is capable of reliably delivering vehicle location information in any circumstance with the possible exception of some urban canyons or inside tunnels. GPS, GNSS, Glonass, Galileo and BeiDou 2 are increasingly required equipment in motor vehicles, both for navigation and location.

These technologies are essential in aiding the development of autonomous vehicles, but the meters-level accuracy of these systems is insufficient to enable automated driving alone. Ligado (the former LightSquared) has proposed a “High-Precision Location (HPL) augmentation system for GPS” intended to deliver centimeter-level accuracy using terrestrial receivers. Ligado’s HPL is still only a concept.

Content Delivery

Aside from tracking and location, content delivery has long been a strong suit for satellite systems. SiriusXM is a standout in this application space with 31 million active subscribers, $5 billion in revenue and $500 million in net income. The satellite-based entertainment service has proven itself as one of the most successful subscription-based services in the world, regardless of industry.

In fact, SiriusXM’s success marks the company as the most successful global connected car service provider. SiriusXM has been in the midst of an extended, multi-year effort to expand its in-vehicle application footprint beyond entertainment and into connected car services such as telematics and even video.

The video delivery effort failed in spite of being implemented briefly by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) as a rear seat entertainment solution. SiriusXM had the right idea in delivering video via satellite, but its bandwidth limitation was a fatal flaw, limiting the service to a handful of kid-friendly channels.

Undaunted, SiriusXM acquired the call center operation of Agero several years ago as part of its enduring telematics ambitions. The company now counts Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai among its current clients.

Like Volvo before, SiriusXM is seeking to enhance its one-way satellite vehicle connections with a cellular back channel. The company acquired Automatic, a provider of aftermarket cellular-based connectivity devices, for $100 million earlier this year with this concept in mind.

SiriusXM is also seeking to integrate its satellite-delivered content with its smartphone app while leveraging its terrestrial repeaters to give subscribers more listening options. Here, again, the goal is to achieve a hybrid sat-cell customer connection to expand the range of connected services.

Software Updates

Four years ago, SiriusXM sought to offer its narrow-gauge satellite connection for over-the-air software updates in partnership with Digital Fountain. Given the limited bandwidth of the SiriusXM signal, the concept was to deliver software updates in segments defined by the amount of time a vehicle was being driven enabling, over time, the full update payload to be delivered. Auto makers shunned the offer.

Around the same time SiriusXM began pushing a hybrid satellite/LTE module in hopes of taking over the Telematics Control Unit (TCU) business in cars. Here, too, car makers shunned the deal. SiriusXM has had more success promoting its satellite network for use in support of the infrastructure associated with vehicle-to-vehicle communications subject to U.S. Department of Transportation mandate. SiriusXM is under consideration to provide the secure credential delivery platform for the public key infrastructure. This opportunity is still pending.

SiriusXM’s interest in over-the-air software updates has struck a nerve with auto makers and satellite providers. Antenna maker Kymeta has zeroed in on over-the-air updates as the core application behind its automotive ambitions. The company is known to be working with Toyota and in partnership with Intelsat.

Pivotal Commware and Inmarsat have taken note of Kymeta’s work with Intelsat and have begun their own efforts targeting software updates. Pivotal executives note that the automotive market is adequately served today by cellular providers, but the company has had some talks with auto makers. Inmarsat has partnered with Continental to demonstrate its software update capabilities for cars. Inmarsat has also developed demos with Movimiento, now owned by Delphi.

Kymeta has been, by far, the most aggressive player in pursuit of over-the-air software updates for passenger vehicles via satellite. In addition to working toward an eventual launch in Toyota production vehicles, Kymeta has entered the civilian armored vehicle segment — a market for which its low profile meta-material-based antenna is ideally suited.

The software update application sounds dull in connection with the potential value proposition of satellite technology. The reality is that software updates — driven as they often are by mandatory and often safety-related recalls — is an increasingly critical value proposition for car makers.

Modern cars have tens of millions of lines of software code on board much of which is either filled with bugs or in need of updating, not unlike smartphones and computers. Of particular concern is the software governing safety systems which are dependent upon algorithms that determine airbag deployments or other safety-related functions.

A growing proportion of the millions of recalls in the U.S. and around the world are related to software. The challenge for auto makers includes everything from finding the current owners of cars with software updates, to convincing those customers to bring their vehicles to their dealers, to compensating the dealers for the update/recall work.

Not only is the customer engagement process expensive, the performance of the recall itself is typically several hundred dollars per vehicle.

It is no coincidence that Toyota and Kymeta have targeted software updates as a priority application for satellite connectivity. The cost of implementing a satellite-based vehicle connection can only be justified in the context of scenario whereby software updates are broadcast to all relevant vehicles at once and installed appropriately. Satellite technology, of the sort available via Intelsat, offers the bandwidth necessary for this application. Once recall-related software updates are mastered, map updates can be taken on.

Map Data

Car makers are in a pitched battle with smartphone-based navigation systems capable of accessing the latest map data. A high priority for car makers is finding a cost-justified means for delivering map updates to vehicles in a timelier manner.

As the automotive industry moves inexorably toward a driverless future, the accuracy of on-board maps will become an ever-higher priority. Safety systems will increasingly leverage maps to enable assisted-driving solutions.

It’s All About Software

Satellite-based software updates will also unlock on-demand vehicle performance enhancements of the sort already delivered by Tesla Motors. While it is true that cellular may be more familiar and less expensive, satellite providers that implement their systems appropriately, may be able to broadcast updates from which receivers can select only that content which is relevant to their on-board systems.

Such a system can be expected to work in concert with existing Wi-Fi and cellular-based vehicle connections for a wide range of data exchange applications. This is especially true in the context of evolving vehicle automation platforms which will require frequent updates of on-board algorithms. It will also put a premium on in-vehicle systems capable of automatically selecting the least expensive connectivity options for sending and receiving data.

Of course, the software update proposition is only a means for setting the stage for other forms of content delivery once automated cars are commonplace. While SiriusXM is already delivering traffic and weather and news along with audio content, video delivered via satellite will start making sense in 10 years when full automation starts to become a reality.

The satellite opportunity in passenger cars, therefore, begins with location and tracking, expands to content delivery and has now settled on software management. While all of the other applications are important, the role of software updates must not be underestimated and it underlines the cleverness of the Kymeta-Toyota-Intelsat engagement.


Second only to software updates, the cybersecurity challenge facing auto makers remains a daunting challenge. Until now, car makers have survived on what the industry sadly acknowledges is security by obscurity — i.e. cars are generally an unfamiliar hacking environment, which is good enough. We now know that security by obscurity is not good enough.

Car makers need the ability to update software remotely in order to deliver certifiably secure systems. In essence software updates and cybersecurity go hand in hand. It so happens that satellite signals are regarded as significantly more secure than cellular communications — a further indication of the efficacy of satellite connectivity.

The challenge for auto makers to successfully deploy satellite systems for software updates and, eventually, video content delivery is to plot a path toward market introduction that scales rapidly and allows for maximum leverage of this new connectivity modality. Kymeta and Toyota may be years away from a large-scale launch, but when the day arrives it will be game-changing.

Just as Kymeta’s initial implementations are in civilian armored vehicles today, it is likely that the premium end of the passenger vehicle market will see the first satellite connections. When that day arrives it will mean fewer trips to the dealer and ongoing vehicle enhancements after the sale. That is the market changing proposition currently offered by satellite technology. VS