Get ready for eCall. Like it or not, the pan-European cellular emergency system for vehicles, and its Russian counterpart ERA-Glonass will be mandatory in the next few years. There are excellent public safety reasons why governments are pushing for emergency call capabilities in every new car on the road: As much as 50% faster emergency response times, reduced auto accident fatalities, and an estimated savings of billions of euros annually.
The EU has been piloting eCall for several years, and most in the industry expect it to become mandatory for all new type approved vehicles by the end of 2015. ERA-Glonass, the Russian version of eCall, is coming even sooner, with all new cars sold in Russia required to have cellular emergency call systems by January 2015. Some auto manufacturers and first-tier suppliers are not thrilled about being required to add eCall to new vehicles — having to invest significant resources to implement a technology for which they see no real business benefit. But, the proponents of the system believe this perspective is shortsighted. The reality is that eCall technology can serve as an entry point into telematics — and a platform for a wide range of remote and in-vehicle services that create real value and differentiation. To comply with eCall and ERA-Glonass requirements, however – much less to capitalize on the larger telematics opportunity – OEMs and suppliers need to overcome a variety of technical and operational hurdles.
One of the common mistakes auto manufacturers make when implementing connectivity for the first time is simply underestimating the complexity of cellular technology, and particularly, the testing effort required. When building a GPS solution, for example, a manufacturer can assume that the technology will behave basically the same way in almost any location, because GPS is a relatively fixed, stable technology. Alternatively, cellular is a “living” network that is constantly changing. Each country has its own mobile network operators (MNOs), each of whom may have slightly different implementations of their cellular networks, even when supporting the same cellular technology. And of course, cars don’t stay in one place. They frequently cross borders and pass from one mobile network to the next — handoffs that can be technically quite challenging.
There are specific strategies that can be applied to address these issues and the many others that suppliers will come across in an automotive environment. To benefit from them, however, suppliers need to work with cellular partners that have expertise in the automotive industry and ample real-world experience overcoming the unique technological challenges of this market.
Expectation of Higher Quality
Another area where vehicle connectivity is vastly different from other cellular solutions is the degree of quality and reliability that automotive solutions demand. Just building a solution that can withstand the environment under the hood – hot, dirty, constantly vibrating – for many years and many thousands of miles is a significant challenge. Meeting the rigorous reliability requirements of an automotive safety system on which lives may literally depend is another.
Automotive cellular systems also carry very different user expectations. If your mobile phone is acting up, you’re accustomed to turning it off and on again to fix the problem. If you get off an airplane, you expect to wait a minute while your phone connects to the network. If you’re using a technology system in a €40,000 car, however – especially an emergency safety system – you expect it to work correctly and immediately, every time.
Using high-quality cellular components is not enough to assure this level of quality and reliability; just as important is the way these components are integrated with the vehicle, and the software and protocols employed. Once again, it is essential to work with suppliers that have extensive experience with cellular and automotive, and use solutions designed and tested specifically for vehicles.
Other challenges associated with in-vehicle cellular solutions, are the costs and time involved in development. Typically, much of this effort is devoted to basic integration – assembling cellular module, application processor, GPS/Glonass, and the controller area network (CAN) interface with the vehicle into a telematics control unit (TCU) architecture – and thoroughly testing it.
To reduce the costs and timelines associated with this effort, suppliers should look for pre-integrated cellular solutions that provide all of these components in a prebuilt, pre-tested architecture.
Finally, manufacturers and suppliers need to consider how in-vehicle cellular solutions will be maintained over the life of the vehicle. Remote over-the-air (OTA) management of cellular devices is not a new concept, but the reality is that connecting millions of cars to a back-end system is a very different challenge than connecting other types of cellular devices.
Automotive companies need secure, robust OTA management solutions to accomplish this. They should look for proven systems that already support millions of devices in the field. They should also consider using cellular suppliers that offer not merely the ability to update devices, but an advanced cloud infrastructure to perform those updates for the auto manufacturer over the life of the solution.
Capitalizing on Telematics
Once you’ve navigated all of these pitfalls, what’s the upside for your business, apart from complying with regulatory mandates? If you recognize eCall and ERA-Glonass for what they are – a foundation for more advanced telematics services – quite a lot.
Suppliers can build a variety of compelling, high-value services on top of the cellular eCall platform. Possibilities include:
• Remote door lock/unlock from a cell phone (OnStar’s most popular feature)
• Remote start and seat heater activation
• Vehicle tracking
• Applications to monitor driving patterns and fuel efficiency
• Pay-as-you-drive insurance
• Real-time localized navigation updates (for example, current parking spaces available at the mall)
These are just a few of the possibilities. And while some may seem like minor conveniences, the reality is that these are the kind of features that wow prospective buyers when they visit the showroom, and provide real differentiation between brands. It’s important to keep these factors in mind when planning your eCall solution. You can choose to do the minimum required to comply with the mandate, for the lowest possible cost. But recognize that once you build connectivity into a vehicle, there are far more interesting – and profitable – possibilities. And if you’re not capitalizing on them, your competitors probably are.