How hybrid connectivity will power the connected car?
When you think of what the future will look like, a common suggestion is vehicles that drive themselves. Whether it be in film or in literature, the idea of autonomous vehicles has been floated for decades, but in the last few years, it’s started to become a reality.
Trials in the US, Singapore, India and more have given a glimpse into how self-driving vehicles might function, and how they may be transformative for a range of other industries.
However, despite the opportunities offered by autonomous vehicles, challenges still remain. Legislation is lagging way behind, while existing road users may not be prepared for streets full of self-driving cars or trucks.
Then there’s the issue that perhaps could cause the biggest headache for global adoption: connectivity.
To power a self-driving vehicle, you need high speed, low latency connectivity that allows the car to “speak” to both other vehicles on the road, and road systems, such as traffic lights. Initial models overcome this by relying on local sensors to ensure that connectivity issues – inevitable from time to time – do not cause harm on the roads.
However, future models will still need access to high-speed connectivity for both in-car and driving purposes. Not only will connectivity power the vehicle, it will also add to the experience inside through “infotainment” platforms.
So, how to deliver the connectivity that will enable the experience needed within connected cars? There are two obvious contenders; satellite and 5G. The former has traditional been key to vehicular connectivity – hence the still used term “satnav” for navigation and mapping systems. But in 5G, there is now a realistic terrestrial competitor.
Onur Karabey – co-founder and CEO of Alcan Systems – believes the vehicles of the future will require both technologies.
“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 switch over to satellite making the most of universal connectivity but without the high price tag of relying on this technology full time.”
Driving antennas forward
Alcan builds smart antenna systems which use ultra-thin flat panel technology, very low power, and are able to adjust their beam electronically without any moving parts. As a start-up, it successfully trialled the world’s first liquid crystal-based phased antenna in a satellite communications field test.
According to Karabey, the company, which is based in Germany, is currently developing a smart flat panel antenna which will work with the 5G and satellite infrastructures to enable its vision for connected cars. This follows 15 years of research, using liquid crystal technology in high frequency applications.
Karabey noticed that, on a system level, there was nothing using liquid crystal technology and automotive presented an obvious use case. This led to the firm’s development of the first liquid crystal-based phased array antenna, which could form the cornerstone of an ecosystem that will allow operators to overcome the challenge of quickly rolling out the very high frequency mmWave technology required for 5G.
Returning to connected cars, Karabey explains that Alcan is combining this technology with satellite communications, which has traditionally been very expensive, perhaps even prohibitively so for consumer markets, and also high power.
“If you go to market today with an existing antenna, it will almost be as expensive as the car,” he adds. “What we’re doing, with this technology, will see antenna costs reduced hugely – this our long vision target.”
The company is running two programmes simultaneously to achieve this: in urban areas connectivity is provided by mobile terrestrial operators – via services such as 5G connectivity – while in rural areas, where connectivity is sparse, it will be provided by satellite communications.
Alcan is working with several companies, including K-Band satellite provider SES, and multiple mobile operators, to provide the technology. It has also partnered with several German car manufacturers to look at how to implement its solution.
Car antennas have changed dramatically in recent years, from long, thin expandable antennas, to car fins. But, according to Karabey, Alcan will be a “game-changer”.
He adds: “The requirement on the car will be much different to what we find today. Current antennas can only offer limited data rates, offering low connectivity through a SIM card or satellite connectivity. With our technology you will achieve around 60-100Mbps connectivity in-car.”
For reference, the average broadband connectivity speeds for fixed terminals in the UK is around 51Mbps according to cable.co.uk, but this is among the slowest in Europe. The average speed in Western Europe for fixed data connectivity is 90.56Mbps.
Phasing to the future
In a phased array antenna, you have four main sub-components: the radiating element, which detects the signal; a phase shifter, the component that controls the speed of the signal; a feed network which connects phase shifters; and a controller which computes this.
Alcan replaces the semiconductor phase shifters, which control the signal, with liquid crystal panel technology. Because this technology is thinner and consumes less power, it allows more control over higher speed connections.
He adds: “What phased array antenna does by controlling the signal speed, you transmit or receive the signal from a certain direction on the space. So the antenna is always on the table, there is no mechanical moment on the table. But by controlling the phase shifters, you are steering your beam from one direction to the other.”
Karabey predicts that the vehicle market will split into two key stages. The first will be based around autonomy in the way they are driven. This is a key focus across the automotive sector right now. According to Facts and Factors market research report, the Global Autonomous Cars Market size & share revenue is expected to grow from USD 23.33 Billion in 2020 to reach USD 64.88 Billion by 2026, at 22.7% annual CAGR growth during forecast period of 2021-2026.
“Initially, we will see connectivity improve which will help cars come up to the fourth or fifth level of autonomous vehicles. But we are focussed on the next step – infotainment. If you’re not driving your car, what will you be doing? You’ll need entertainment, or the ability to use your car like an office, while moving.
“At the moment, in many countries, if you are travelling on a motorway, forget about internet connectivity – even making a traditional phone call is a problem!”
For Alcan, connectivity will change the definition of what a car is. No longer will it just be a means of transport – it becomes “a software platform with four wheels”.
“It will change completely,” he adds. “From today to 2030, it will be a hybrid experience, but afterwards, it will be a full software platform. We may not even have our own cars – we will simply call a connected car through an app, and that vehicle will always be connected through hybrid high-speed communications.”
Subscribe to our Editor's weekly newsletter