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BMW Wants to Keep Their Cars Online with Satellites

Thursday, December 15, 2022

BMW aims to use satellites to fill in the coverage gaps for their increasingly connected vehicles.

Customers are increasing demanding and expecting vehicles to have constant and sufficient internet connections. Features such as streaming services and over-the-air-updates depend on this connection. BMW recognizes this and is exploring satellite-based solutions.

Those solutions, at the moment at least, would be limited to time sensitive or emergency services. For example, Abuelsamid from Guidehouse Insights describes the following scenarios: “If you break down or run out of battery power in the middle of Nebraska where there’s no cell coverage, satellite connectivity will allow you to send a message for roadside assistance.” This is because satellite internet is currently too expensive and limited for constant and dependable use. However, that is likely to change soon.

Way back in 2016 Toyota showed off the first concept car with satellite connectivity together with Kymeta. Today, however, there are significant new actors such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network and Geely’s space technology unit has also launched low-orbit satellites for vehicle connectivity. As these satellite networks advance and mature the price of data should decrease and speeds and bandwidth increase. For example, Toyota has invested in Xona Space Systems, a California based company aiming to improve location data, with the hope that the “high-performance alternative to GPS” can play a key role in solving “all-weather autonomy”.

Personal Comment:

If we assume, as seems quite reasonable to do, that the significant technical hurdles to achieving widely available and stable satellite internet, which the article briefly mentions, are solved how might this impact transportation. There are, of course, many possible implications, but I want to pick up on one dimension of accessibility with respect to the difference between urban and rural locations.

Models like CASE (connected, autonomous, shared, electric) tend to be focused on urban centres. The ‘connected’ part of this model also means connection to the infrastructure and other vehicles. Most likely this will be built on the backbone of 5G. But 5G has limited range, making it much more difficult to implement in rural contexts. That is, if even current coverage struggles in places like central Nebraska or the Highlands of Scotland then 5G will even more so.

Something like satellite internet might not compare with 5G in terms of latency and bandwidth, but it has the potential for much greater coverage. Though 56% of the world’s population live in urban centres 44% don’t. OEM’s looking to satellite internet for certain features and services is potentially a good sign for accessibility for nearly half of the world’s population.

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems