Satellite and 5G: An essential partnership for the future of connected cars

Set to be the ultimate disruptor for the automotive industry, autonomous vehicles are the future that sci-fi films have imagined for decades, however when it comes to delivering connectivity for the next generation of transport, how do car manufacturers overcome the challenges of delivering consistent coverage? ALCAN Systems CEO Onur Karabey looks at how a hybrid approach, using a combination of satellite and 5G, could address this problem.

The connectivity conundrum

In the last few years, self-driving cars have emerged and impressed in trials across the world. Despite inevitable challenges with such a leap forward in technology, the early indications are that this technology will soon be sophisticated enough for commercial purposes, with Tesla already selling vehicles with a beta version of its self-driving software. The self-driving element, rather than involving high speed, low latency connectivity to control the car, will initially rely on local sensors to ensure that connectivity issues which are inevitable from time to time, do not cause harm on the roads, but that does not mean that high speed connectivity is not an essential part of the connected car future.

An autonomous vehicle is a fantastic idea, but for it to be a concept that thrives beyond the novelty factor, it needs more to drive the market. Customers will need a fully connected experience with integrated infotainment for the idea to become part and parcel of everyday life, rather than a flash in the pan technology. This new type of transport needs to offer more than its predecessors, from allowing comfortable and reliable remote working facilities for example, to enabling smooth media consumption without buffering.

Satellite vs 5G

So, how to deliver the connectivity that will enable the experience needed within connected cars? There are two obvious contenders; satellite and 5G. Each have their pros and cons, let’s start with 5G as it is so often touted as a key technology in conversations around connected vehicles.

5G is starting to prove that it can deliver high speed, high capacity, low latency connections in pilot schemes across the world. However, the challenge is scale of coverage. By their very nature, 5G frequencies cannot cover the same areas of previous network generations and the result is significantly more infrastructure is needed to deliver comprehensive coverage. This challenge means that certainly when it comes to mmWave frequency 5G, we can expect it to be the remit of only cities and large towns over the next 5 years – it is simply not possible for operators to deliver widespread roll out of the technology which needs a 10x denser infrastructure than today’s 4G network. But where does this leave our connected vehicles? Well with 5G alone, it gives an excellent experience in cities, but leaves a lot to be desired as we travel to rural and even suburban areas.

Does satellite therefore offer a better option? In some ways, yes. Certainly, in rural areas, satellite broadband is going to offer much more reliable connectivity for the use cases we mentioned, however there is a catch.

Although satellite is capable of delivering excellent connectivity in a rural and suburban setting, city-based coverage is not as practical. Heavily built-up areas make it a challenge to ensure the continuous connectivity needed – car antennas simply cannot compete for line of sight with a skyscraper. So, what are the options?

Stronger together

For us there is an obvious answer, that is to take the best parts of both and combine them in a hybrid approach. In cities, cars would take advantage of 5G networks and the fast, high-capacity service they are able to offer. As the vehicle moves out of an area with 5G coverage, it would fail over to satellite making the most of universal connectivity but without the high price tag of relying on this technology full time. At ALCAN we work across both the 5G and satellite space and have particular expertise in combining equipment so that it can serve both 5G and satellite in a single solution. When it comes to the connectivity that is needed to take self-driving vehicles from a neat idea to a real asset for day to day living, car manufacturers need to offer seamless connectivity and it is only by taking the best of both the telecoms and satellite worlds that they will achieve this.