Vehicle Connectivity Moves to the Next Generation

The growing number of plug-in vehicles makes connectivity even more important going forward.

The growing number of plug-in vehicles makes connectivity more important for managing and monitoring battery charging and preconditioning. (Continental)

It’s been 35 years since moviegoers saw Michael Douglas standing on a beach, holding what looked like a brick to his ear, in the film Wall Street. In 1987, wireless mobile communication was mostly limited to affluent customers. The hardware, like Douglas’s phone, was large and clunky. Service was limited to voice mode.

Fast-forward to 2022 and it’s not uncommon for people to carry multiple devices with continuous high-speed data connectivity, including a smartphone, tablet and watch. And most new vehicles now come from the factory with connectivity. However, unlike consumer electronics that tend to be replaced every few years, vehicles can often last two decades or more – and that can pose a problem for connectivity.

The analog cellular network that enabled Douglas to call his young protege has long since been shut down, as have the 2G digital networks. Carriers now have started switching off 3G to repurpose the radio spectrum to expand 5G coverage. When the analog network was turned off in 2007, General Motors had no upgrade path available for customers with early OnStar telematics. Several years later, when 2G started to fade, Nissan offered upgrades to owners of first-generation Leaf EVs. At the time, the number of affected customers was small enough that most OEMs didn’t find it economically viable to engineer an upgrade.

With the number of connected vehicles increasing steadily and more customers now actually subscribing to telematics services, the situation now is quite different. The growing number of plug-in vehicles makes connectivity even more important than in the past; it’s critical for managing and monitoring battery charging and preconditioning. Most automakers this time have developed upgrade solutions for at least higher-volume models.

For example, Subaru and Tesla are replacing communication modules in their vehicles with those that have a 4G LTE radio. Others, such as Audi, have partnered with companies like Mojio for a system that connects via the onboard diagnostics (OBD) port and integrates with the in-vehicle software to maintain the services previously provided. In most cases, these upgrades are costing customers several hundred dollars – and many are likely to think twice before committing.

With many OEMs aiming to double revenues in the next decade, mostly thanks to connected services, it’s more important than ever to ensure a vehicle can retain its connectivity for most, if not all, of its useful life. Over-the-air (OTA) software updates are another key driver for connectivity to enable both new features and security fixes. Numerous vehicles in China already are equipped with 5G connectivity. In the next few months, the new BMW iX will be the first to have it in North America. And Audi recently announcing it will launch 5G on 2024 model year vehicles.

With three generations of wireless communications technology now obsolete, it’s past time for OEMS to make sure they design in an easy upgrade path. Unfortunately, software-defined radios haven’t yet reached a level of maturity to make them viable for vehicle connectivity. That means hardware will need to be changed, probably at least once in a vehicle’s life. 5G is just arriving, but engineers are well along in development of 6G. Designing vehicles for an easy data-modem swap should be a top priority for every vehicle engineering team going forward.