Among the many untold stories in the telematics industry, the tale of Volvo OnCall and Orbcomm stands out, especially in the context of this week’s SISTER workshop on satellite communications and intelligent transport technologies, which took place in
Brussels. What might, for Volvo, have become a visionary hybrid implementation of satellite and cellular technology for a telematics system for the
U.S. market was undone by Orbcomm’s bankruptcy filing in 2000.
In retrospect, it is both understandable and deeply disappointing that no other automotive telematics planner chose to follow the Volvo path. Maybe decision makers saw the Volvo experience as a cautionary tale instead of as the inspiration that it actually represented.
Maybe if the European Union had taken a closer look at what Volvo was dreaming up they might have included satellite technology in their eCall plans. Alas, the EU did not include satellite technology in eCall which may be why the SISTER initiative was founded as the first association with the mandate to evaluate the possibility of integrating satellite technology to enhance the complete range of ITS technologies including eCall, road user charging, map updating, dangerous goods monitoring and enhanced Galileo services. SISTER concludes its research activities and will publish its recommendations next month.
Back in the mid-1990’s, Volvo was considering the inclusion of Orbcomm’s low-earth orbit satellites as a backup communication channel to cellular TDMA and Amps technologies. The company was willing to include satellite in spite of the obtrusiveness of the required antenna technology of the time.
Today, Volvo offers cellular-only telematics throughout Europe with short-term plans for a U.S. launch of a similar system. Orbcomm, meanwhile, has recovered and is a supplier of telematics technology to Volvo Trucks under the Dynafleet brand. Orbcomm is in fact a leader in the modest but growing hybrid – satellite-cellular - connectivity business.
The absence of satellite technology from existing automotive telematics solutions, especially for emergency applications, is extraordinary given the purpose of such systems. The EU regularly makes inflated claims of the life-saving ability of eCall systems to summon assistance from emergency responders. Chief critics of eCall are quick to point out that passing motorists frequently make the first reports of accidents rendering eCall messages redundant.
Where eCall could have an impact, though, is in the event of accidents occurring in rural areas, where cellular coverage is wanting. In fact, some say that the most severe accidents and injuries often occur in these circumstances. This is obviously where satellite technology could make a difference.
The good news is that the EU is finally looking at the integration of satellite technology at least as an idea, if not as part of the existing eCall specification. Even better news lies in the fact that this consideration is taking place after the demise of Worldspace and following the allocation of spectrum for DVB-SH satellite technology. The SISTER program is also taking place at the very onset of the European Galileo system which has direct application for all location-related ITS applications.
In fact, satellite navigation is the most widespread of current satellite applications and is expected to lead the way in satellite integration into a wider range of services. The arrival of Galileo promises to deliver better than 10cm location accuracy potentially suitable for road pricing and lane keeping applications and possibly for map updating.
SISTER workshop representatives foresee $43B in cumulative financial benefits - combined revenue and savings - from the integration of enhanced satellite navigation technology. Potential sources of these gains include: fuel consumption reduction, travel time reduction, air pollution reduction, CO2 emission reduction, cost savings due to congestion reduction and cost savings from decreased injuries.
Current satellite technologies available in Europe, and elsewhere around the world, offer both superior location information delivery but also the ability to deliver audio and video content. Outside of Volvo, the only other company to foresee the arrival of this value proposition was Hughes Telematics.
Hughes proposed a hybrid satellite-cellular telematics system nearly five years ago that not-coincidentally included a DVB-SH component originally to be provided by Ico Global Communications. These plans were interrupted, at least in part, by Ico’s filing for bankruptcy. (Sound familiar?)
Nevertheless, the Hughes vision called for a consumer-targeted telematics system integrating emergency response, roadside assistance and concierge services along with entertainment content delivery. In fact, Ico was making its own plans to introduce aftermarket and portable devices for audio and video content.
Ico has two DVB-SH competitors in the U.S., TerreStar and SkyTerra, both of whom will eventually be in position to offer the same telematics and infotainment solutions envisioned by Ico. Like Ico, TerreStar has a satellite deployed and in its final phase of testing. The large TerreStar satellite - which allows for smaller footprint device antennas - is capable of spot-beam coverage of the U.S. for two-way voice and data. The TerreStar satellite is suitable to eCall and commercial applications or for rural areas that lose terrestrial cellular networks during natural disasters.
Sirius XM's satellite network has also been put to use for telematics applications including traffic and weather. Sirius XM also recently acquired the assets of Worldspace, meaning the European satellite radio provider could some day participate in telematics opportunities. Worldspace competitor Ondas has deals in place with several European OEMs, but no satellites.
It’s been a long road, but the reality has finally caught up with the vision. The so-called S-band DVB-SH spectrum allocation for
Europe was awarded to Eutelsat and a joint venture partner SES Astra. (Ico was one of the other bidders and is still mounting a legal challenge to the award.)
DVB-SH offers the ability for bi-directional communications for low-bandwidth ITS applications – available by the end of 2010 – along with some limited two-way communications to be launched in 2011. But DVB-SH expects to realize the prospect of entertainment content delivery for embedded, aftermarket and portable devices. This capability is important given that several SISTER participants expect that telematics services will have to be bundled with entertainment content to be attractive to consumers.
The recommendation of at least one presenter at the SISTER workshop was that all vehicles operated by public authorities should be connected via satellite, that all commercial fleet vehicles should be similarly connected and that, ultimately, all consumer vehicles should be linked via satellite. Some combination of public and private funding will surely be necessary, but the anticipated benefits to road safety and traffic management have already been proven by SISTER’s experiments.