January 2, 2019

Messages from Outer Space

Today’s Cars Rely Increasingly on Satellite Technology

Modern cars are increasingly relying on messages from outer space to keep drivers abreast of the latest developments on the roads ahead of them.

The latest technologies, such as satellite navigation, rely on real-time messages beamed back to earth from an army of satellites orbiting the planet, which ultimately help keep drivers better informed than ever before.

The newest technologies are available in the ‘connected’ car of today which gives drivers access to a whole host of information that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.

What is a connected car?

The term ‘connected car’ is one that is becoming widely used and increasingly commonplace. Basically, a connected car is a car that is equipped with internet access and usually to a wireless local area network (LAN).

This allows the car to share internet access with other devices both inside as well as outside the vehicle.

Often, the car is also fitted with special technologies that tap into the internet and provide additional benefits to the driver – such as improved communication about traffic or weather conditions.

connected car

Why are satellite systems important?

Satellite systems play an increasing role in directing transport across the globe. The most well-known and regularly used system is the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), which consists of up to 32 medium Earth orbit satellites, with the exact number of satellites varying as older satellites are retired and replaced.

Operational since 1978 and globally available since 1994, GPS today is the world’s most widely-used satellite navigation system. However, it’s not the only one.

The Russian GLONASS system (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System), for example, is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides a civilian radio-navigation-satellite service and is also used by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. GLONASS has full global coverage with 24 satellites.

The EU and the European Space Agency (ESA) have established their own alternative to GPS, called the Galileo positioning system, which first became operational in late 2016.

Galileo is expected to be compatible with the modern American GPS system and receivers will be able to combine the signals from both Galileo and GPS satellites to greatly increase the accuracy – although it is not expected to be in full service for another two years.

What role can they play?

According to the European Space Agency – the inter-governmental organisation of EU member states dedicated to the exploration of space – the latest satellite technology can make information provision more reliable and allow for increased innovation opportunities for modern transport systems.

By using the latest satellite systems, vehicles of the future will be able to receive a constant stream of data from satellites orbiting the planet or from transport hubs.

For instance, satellites will be able to spot severe weather conditions like snow storms well in advance of those on the ground. This information can then be communicated to the local transport hub, which can then send a notification to every vehicle in the affected area.

The connected car will then communicate to the driver whether it is in a suitable condition to cope with the conditions or whether they are outside the capabilities of the car. The driver will then be able to use satellite navigation to find an optimal route around the storm or to the closest service stop.

The ESA also believes that the use of satellite data will help alleviate congestion on our roads. When accidents occur or there are specific periods of high traffic, Earth-orbiting satellites will be able to spot these and notify local transport hubs.

The hubs will then be able to contact vehicles in the surrounding area and divert them to a shorter or more efficient route.

In the event of an accident, the vehicles involved can also send an automatic notification to the local transport hub, a situation that the EU has been developing its eCall system for and which has now become the industry standard.

What is eCall?

eCall, the abbreviation of Emergency Call, is the latest safety technology developed by the EU, which contacts the emergency services automatically if a car is involved in an accident anywhere across the Member States.

The eCall system is designed to improve emergency response times to incidents, and from April this year has become a pan-European industry-wide standard that now has to be fitted to any new model being type-approved for sale for the European market.

eCall can automatically phone the emergency services with satellite-based GPS location information, and can also include details on the car’s status – for example, whether the car’s airbags have been deployed.

This prepares the emergency services for the kind of incident that has taken place and what they are likely to encounter when they arrive. In the UK, the infrastructure for dealing with eCalls has already been put in place in preparation for the new legislation.