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11 Myths About Vehicular IoT

Oct. 28, 2020
Vehicular IoT design transforms a wide range of vehicles in transportation systems into wireless communications hubs.

This article appeared in Electronic Design and has been published here with permission.

Internet of Things (IoT) implementations are challenging enough in the traditional use cases for these wireless device networks: agricultural, industrial, smart-city, and other applications across a variety of industries. But deploying IoT takes on another level of complexity when the location is mobile and has the RF dynamics of a transportation vehicle. Vehicular IoT is a fast-emerging area of IoT, driven by an organization’s need to transform trains, trucks, ships, cars, and other vehicles into wireless communications hubs with next-gen connectivity. In this article, Laird Connectivity’s Ted Hebron discusses and dispel 11 myths about the emerging area of vehicular IoT.

1. This is just a new term for something that’s existed for a while. Vehicles have always had wireless technologies.

Yes, wireless technology isn’t new in vehicles ranging from supply-chain trucks to passenger cars. However, the wireless technology in these transportation vehicles and fleets is taking a major leap forward. Vehicles that once had one or two wireless technologies and devices are now being upgraded to serve as wireless communications hubs with a long list of wireless protocols, wireless devices, and applications. If you take a look inside the cabin of an 18-wheeler or a police cruiser, for example, what you increasingly find now is an IoT environment as “busy” and complex as an IoT environment in an industrial plant.

2. Yes, but IoT is a misnomer for vehicles; the term “IoT” should be reserved for other deployments. A vehicle is a different kettle of fish and should have a different term.

It’s definitely true that most IoT deployments over the past few years have focused on use cases in environments very different from vehicles: industrial plants, agricultural applications, and so forth. But to me, IoT is far broader than any specific use case. What makes IoT qualify as “IoT,” regardless of the setting, is the fact that multiple wireless technologies need to work together in an integrated fashion, supporting a range of wireless devices and operating successfully in a complex RF environment. Those kinds of scenarios need a true IoT strategy, and vehicles definitely fit that description.

Vehicles like trucking fleets, cargo trains, and freight-carrying airplanes are being outfitted with an increasing number of wirelessly connected devices and wirelessly enabled applications that require a sophisticated vehicular IoT system. The IoT implementations include diagnostic systems, environmental sensors, physical security devices, temperature-control sensors, product-tracking capabilities, enhanced communications systems, worker safety devices, mobile computing devices, and more. All require a multi-technology wireless environment with technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, GPS, and LoRa.

3. I can understand a police cruiser or an ambulance fitting into this category, given the number of devices that first responders have in their vehicles. But a vehicle with Wi-Fi for passengers is a much simpler RF environment.

A Wi-Fi-only wireless implementation would be simpler in many ways, but the vehicular wireless implementations we’re seeing involve far more than just giving kids a reliable Wi-Fi signal for their tablets. Passenger vehicles like school buses, shuttles, trains, city buses, and others may feature Wi-Fi for passengers as their most visible wireless technology, but today it’s not alone.

These vehicles are being outfitted with sophisticated wireless systems that feature multiple technologies and support a long list of systems such as ticketing machines, usage/capacity-reporting systems, digital signage, location tracking, driver dispatch communications, security/safety systems, and more. All of those elements make these true IoT environments.

4. If I’ve worked on traditional IoT deployments in other settings, the challenges will be the same for vehicles.

Yes, many of the best practices from other IoT projects will continue to be assets for you on vehicular IoT projects. And yes, you will be working with many of the same technologies. But in many cases, vehicular IoT will push the boundaries of your past IoT experience. For example, you may be asked to work with wireless technologies that don’t come into play in, for example, an industrial setting.

To illustrate this, let’s look at police cruisers. It’s a timely topic because tens of thousands of first-responder vehicles in the U.S. are having their wireless systems upgraded right now in order to utilize the FirstNet cellular network devoted to public safety agencies. These upgrades typically involve a range of enhancements beyond simply FirstNet connectivity, and it underscores the complexity of vehicular IoT: A police cruiser will not only have FirstNet connectivity, but also Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GNSS, UHF, 4G/5G, and other technologies co-located in the same vehicle. Those technologies must then work in an integrated fashion to support a growing list of devices and applications, including body cams, voice communications, high-def video access, facial detection, laptop connectivity, tracking devices, and more.

5. Planning IoT for vehicles is simpler than in an environment like industrial and medical, where you need to do future-proofing for years from now.

Future-proofing is indeed important in those environments because of the cost and practical difficulty of having to upgrade sensors and wireless systems too frequently. The same is true in vehicles, but for some specific reasons. One is the difficulty of pulling vehicles from the field to perform antenna and wireless system upgrades. That gets magnified when the upgrades include an entire fleet of vehicles, such as utility trucks or a national shipping fleet. Organizations want to minimize downtime for these upgrades, which means the IoT implementations need to anticipate future wireless applications and ensure that the right technologies are in place to support them.

I should also note that adding another antenna to a vehicle often completely alters the RF dynamics in a way that negatively impacts the performance of every other antenna. Engineers must therefore conduct detailed modeling and testing to determine whether additional antennas can be added and where they can be located on the vehicle. Just as importantly, the installations should be done carefully to prevent water intrusion, since additional antennas require additional holes in the vehicle exterior. The risks of water intrusion aren’t negligible, which is why adding more antennas should be done with great caution.

6. IoT is IoT. The RF challenges in vehicles isn’t much different than that in factories or hospital wards.

Many common challenges exist between all of these environments, but vehicles present very specific challenges because of the prevalence of metal surfaces and the congestion of wireless signals in a small space. Vehicles typically have multiple metal surfaces in close proximity to the antennas and devices. These metal surfaces become obstructions, which can negatively affect antenna performance. That challenge is compounded by how many antennas and devices are operating in a relatively small space. RF modeling and testing are critical to understanding the RF dynamics associated with antenna selection and antenna placement in light of these obstacles.

7. Achieving the best RF performance is a matter of installing the antenna on the roof of the vehicle.

That’s somewhat true, but existing roof-top antennas/structures and roof-top material composition play an important role in antenna selection and placement. For many roof-top antenna installations, the roof serves as a ground plane for the antenna, and location on that ground plane can significantly impact RF performance. Conversely, non-metallic surfaces will require selecting an antenna that’s ground-plane-independent. Whether you have a ground-plane-dependent/independent antenna, other antennas complicate antenna location and should be verified through RF modeling and testing.

8. The RF dynamics of vehicles is pretty similar, so if I’ve worked on one, I know what I need to know.

That’s true if you’re working on an identical model of a given set of planes, trains, and automobiles. But even similar vehicles can have dramatically different RF dynamics due to the way they were designed, the types of materials used, the interior layout of the model, etc.

Car models, for example, can look similar on the exterior, but if a manufacturer decided to make one panel fiberglass or plastic rather than metal, the RF dynamics will likely be very different. And there may be other not-immediately-noticeable differences between vehicles that alter the RF dynamics in similar ways. For that reason, RF testing is critical to ensure that the antenna and its placement perform in the way that’s required.

9. Since vehicles are on the move so much, tall antennas are ideal for maintaining connectivity.

Antenna height is no longer a good indicator of performance in vehicles. Low-profile antennas have outstanding performance in a much smaller form factor than the kinds of antennas typically found on vehicles in the past. But a low-profile antenna also makes sense from a very practical point of view—antennas are easily damaged by trees, bushes, wind, people, tunnels, and other obstacles. Low-profile antennas are less likely to be damaged by those dangers, avoiding costly and time-consuming repairs.

10. Other than worrying about damage from trees, working with vehicular antennas is just like other IoT implementations, right?

There’s another issue to watch closely: Unless an engineer has worked on a number of wireless implementations in vehicles, they will likely be surprised at the cable lengths involved in vehicular IoT. Cables are much longer than in most other IoT projects, potentially leading to attenuation issues that impact performance. Engineers working on these projects should carefully choose components, cables, and antennas to mitigate attenuation.

11. If I don’t do work for a large vehicle manufacturer, it’s unlikely I’ll be involved in any vehicular IoT projects.

Yes, lots of wireless systems going into transportation vehicles are installed by the OEM in the factory where it’s originally assembled. But many of these systems are being installed in the aftermarket, with those projects led by engineering firms that work across a variety of industries rather than being vehicular specialists.

Wireless upgrades to first-responder vehicles, for example, are typically done by local engineering firms rather than the OEM. The same is true for wireless installations in trucking fleets that are already in service, mass transit vehicles that are in operation, etc. This is a fast-emerging category of IoT, and it requires a design and engineering strategy that’s tuned to the specific challenges of implementing IoT in vehicles.

Ted Hebron is Senior Product Manager for Laird Connectivity.

About the Author

Ted Hebron | Senior Product Manager, Laird Connectivity

Ted Hebron is a Senior Product Manager for Laird Connectivity, which provides a full range of antenna solutions and wireless modules that simplify the process of using wireless technology. In this role at the company, Hebron leads development of vehicular antennas as well as other connectivity products.

Hebron has 36 years of experience in RF design and antenna engineering utilizing a range of wireless technologies, including cellular, radar, radio, television and low-observable connectivity. He has managed engineering teams in six Laird operations centers around the globe, and his work prior to Laird includes positions at Boeing and Harris Broadcast. He earned his BSEE from the University of Kansas.

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