The connected car was a theme we saw again and again at this year's CES. While all those information-filled touchscreens and next-gen autonomous features sound great on paper, you might be left wondering what kind of internet connection will power them all. Toyota is currently exploring satellite technology that could be the key to the smart cars of the future. Its Mirai fuel cell car is now more high-tech than ever.
Connectivity will continue playing a greater role in the world's automotive fleet, with cars relying more and more on the cloud for new infotainment and automated driving features. In January 2015, research firm Gartner estimated that one in every five vehicles on roadways around the world – some 250 million in total – will have wireless connectivity by 2020.
For its part in that growth, Toyota plans to add a Data Communication Module to a range of new models beginning in 2017. Initially, that module will connect to cellular networks, but as part of its longer term strategy, Toyota is also exploring satellite connectivity.
Since 2013, Toyota has been performing research with US-based satcom company Kymeta, which has designed a flat, lightweight satellite antenna that uses software and liquid crystal technology to electronically track and steer toward satellites. Using these antennas, cars gain satellite connectivity without a big, gawky dish sticking up off the roof. In fact, the embedded antenna design actually looks pretty cool, giving the Mirai research vehicle a high-tech honeycomb on its roof.
"To establish a mobile connection, a conventional dish requires motors [and] is quite heavy and impractical for use on a mobile consumer product like ... say ... a car," explained Kymeta founder Dr. Nathan Kundtz in a prepared NAIAS statement. "The Kymeta antenna has no moving parts and uses software to track satellites that move across the horizon. Kymeta technology will be designed to deliver a terabyte per month of data."
In addition to those big data capabilities, in-car satellite connectivity promises to improve coverage areas across the globe, provide more secure communications, and create a common standard that extends across country borders. Kymeta sees it supporting new and evolving features like 3D and HD mapping, high-density weather mapping, new infotainment and driver assistance features, over-the-air updates and more.
Toyota and Kymeta have signed an agreement giving Toyota the exclusive development and testing rights for the on-car antenna. Toyota recently made an investment of US$5 million in Kymeta through its Mirai Creation Investment Limited Partnership. Research vehicles like the Mirai on display at this year's North American International Auto Show are an integral part of the ongoing research.