Bandwidth. In an era of connected cars, you can never get enough. And the number of 1s and 0s tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles will consume could grow exponentially, according to technology specialists.
Even with 5G, the next generation of cellphone technology, looming on the horizon, that may not be enough. But Toyota thinks it may have found an answer in the form of Kymeta Corp., a Washington State-based technology company that is developing a new type of satellite antenna that could deliver massive amounts to data to moving vehicles.
The challenge is to come up with a “secure, high-bandwidth communications system” that will work in a car, said Toyota Senior Managing Director Shigeki Tomoyama, during a news conference at the North American International Auto Show.
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Cell-based systems are slow – delivering data by the megabyte – and prone to dropouts and other disruptions. Satellite systems could potentially bump that up to the gigabytes, even terabytes, and improve communications reliability, Tomoyama said. The big problem: how to mount one of those big, dish-shaped satellite antennas on the roof of a car and then keep it pointed in the right direction.
Kymeta’s solution is a plate-like antenna measuring barely six inches across that could readily fit on or in a vehicle’s roof. Based on technology first developed for the military, it used LCD technology, much like a TV, to rapidly aim itself at a network of high-power satellites. Even if a car does briefly lose signal, so much data is downloaded a user likely wouldn’t notice if they were listening to music or watching a video, said Nathan Kundtz, Kymeta’s president and CEO.
The ability to move massive amounts of data in – and out – of a vehicle would support not only the latest infotainment systems, he said, but wireless vehicle updates, connected-car technology, even the most data-sucking of tomorrow’s autonomous vehicle systems.
“Our goal is to change the way your vehicle communicates globally, securely and cost-effectively,” said Kundtz.
The system is not quite ready for prime-time. It has just signed a deal with Toyota, the Japanese maker investing $5 million to help develop the Kymeta antenna system. The company just finished another round of funding, meanwhile, with Microsoft founder Bill Gates among its largest investors.
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Toyota has an exclusive deal, but only during the development phase. After that it hopes to line up a number of automotive customers.
Kundtz said it is far too early to discuss costs, though he hinted the system is “expected to have a lower price” of operation than current technologies such as 4G LTE systems.
The antenna itself would be mounted in the roof of a vehicle – but because its signal can’t penetrate metal, it would have to be in an alternative material such as fiberglass or carbon fiber. Asked if the Kymet antenna could be built into a glass sunroof and made transparent, Kundtz dropped a tantalizing hint. “Not yet,” he said with a broad smile, before quickly changing the subject.
The system has been undergoing testing for several years and will likely need several more before coming to market.
That could work out well. Currently, the antennas have to aim at a network of geo-stationary satellite, but it will soon have access to “a wide range of satellites,” Stephen Spengler, the CEO of Intelsat, told TheDetroitBureau.com. The largest provider of satellite-based telecomm services, Intelsat is just launching a new network of “birds” operating in a lower Earth orbit. That would make the Kymeta antennas even more effective, he said.
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