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Is Space the Next Frontier for Self-Driving Cars?

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Geely has just launched its first low-orbit satellites into space. But why would one of China’s biggest car brands make this move? And what does it have to do with its autonomous vehicle ambitions?

Last week Geely, one of the largest automobile OEMs in China and owner of Volvo Cars and Polestar, had 9 of its satellites successfully launched into low earth orbit (read up more on who Geely are here). This will be the beginning of a satellite navigation constellation named the ‘Future Mobility Network’. The network will be under the ownership of Geely’s subsidiary Geespace, which plans to build out the constellation to 240 satellites. The satellites will provide a platform to develop the inter-connectivity of its cars as well as other vehicles. According to Geespace, the constellation will be mainly used in high-precision positioning technology and satellite narrow-band IoT communication solutions, which can help with improvements in fields such as autonomous driving, future mobility, drone transportation, and heavy industrial machinery.

For Geely, high-precision positioning technology is one of the fundamental technologies required to achieve autonomous driving, as a car cannot make decisions safely without knowing its exact position first. Geespace’s constellation could be the first low earth satellite navigation system especially dedicated to automotive and self-driving applications. The current GPS system used widely around the world relies on satellites that are orbiting in medium-Earth orbits over 20,000 km away, whereas low-Earth orbit is defined as orbits with an altitude of 2,000 km or less. This would mean that the signals used by vehicles for positioning will be much stronger compared to GPS – reducing the number of signal weakspots in built-up areas caused by buildings, tunnels and other physical or geographical structures.

This initiative appears to be part of a pivot by Geely Holding Group in recent years from an automotive giant to becoming more of an innovative technology company. This transition has seen Geely increased its investment in digital technologies. which includes the creation of a smart and comprehensive ‘mobility ecosystem’. That is why Geely is not only developing its car business, but also moving into the areas of air mobility, V2X (vehicle-to-everything) systems, car chips, and in the near future, low-earth-orbit satellites.

Whilst the Starlink constellation provided by SpaceX (the space company owned by Tesla’s CEO) is another satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit, it is primarily focused on communications and is not expected to provide high-accuracy navigation services.  

Personal Comment:

Geely’s pivot to developing and building out its own satellite navigation system is an interesting move, especially given that the major business rationale they have given for it is to support self-driving applications. Their first use case is then likely to be in their Zeekr autonomous vehicles for ride-hailing, which they are developing in collaboration with Waymo.

To be clear, almost all self-driving developers use onboard sensors and processing when it comes to road and object detection and recognition. Satellite navigation systems like GPS are only used to assist them with navigation. So why then, does Geely argue that high-precision positioning technologies are a “fundamental technology required to achieve autonomous driving”? Because unlike an Uber driver, if a self-driving car loses GPS signal, it can’t just fall back on its own sense of direction or intuition and drive around until the signal comes back again. If it did, it would not only risk going around in circles and undermining the confidence of passengers in self-driving technology, but it could also risk driving outside of its operational domain.

So accurate satellite navigation systems are not just a ‘nice to have’ but rather a ‘must have’ for self-driving vehicles. Does this mean that all OEMs will need to launch their own satellites like Geely? The short answer is no. But I think Geely is making a strategic first-mover play here. No self-driving vehicle developer can be 100% certain that they will be the ones who will come up with the break-through that will dominate the market. But they can be sure that whoever does end up with the break-through will need access to something better than GPS. So by launching its satellite network, which it intends to open up to other users, Geely appears to be betting on the autonomous vehicle sector as a whole rather than just doubling up on its own self-driving ambitions. Furthermore, as Bloomberg states, “recurring revenue has become the holy grail for automakers looking to break free of the traditional boom-and-bust cycle of vehicle sales”.

An additional consideration is of course also that China is looking to wean itself off reliance on GPS and other such core digital infrastructure controlled by western governments. This move by Geely also aligns with Beijing’s five-year plan (mentioned in the article) for 2021-2025, which calls for an domestic integrated network of satellites for communications, remote sensing and navigation.

Written by Bobby Chen,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Elektromobilitet)