Elon Musk's Next Big Thing Could Be Using the SpaceX Starlink Network to Connect Tesla Vehicles

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【Summary】Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk claims that Tesla is close to achieving Level-5 autonomous driving. These highly advanced self-driving Tesla vehicles will need to be connected to the cloud, transferring terabytes of data between Tesla’s fleet and powerful AI-powered processors that support autonomous driving. This requires requires a low-latency, ultra-fast connection, which the SpaceX Starlink satellite-based broadband internet network can provide.

Eric Walz    Dec 11, 2020 2:30 PM PT
Elon Musk's Next Big Thing Could Be Using the SpaceX Starlink Network to Connect Tesla Vehicles

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk upended the auto industry when his company launched the fully-electric Model S sedan in 2012. In the eight plus years since the electric sedan first went on sale, Tesla has grown into the world's most valuable automaker with a market cap of roughly $400 billion, surpassing the value of U.S. automakers General Motors and Ford Motors Company combined. 

Tesla now offers the Model X SUV, Model Y crossover and Model 3 sedan. The company is also building the futuristic Cybertruck as well as a redesigned Tesla Roadster. But now that Tesla is crowned as the world's most valuable automaker, where does the company go from here? 

Electric cars are not the only thing Musk is working on. In addition to his work at Tesla, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and currently serves as the company's CEO and CTO. SpaceX was the first privately owned aerospace company to send astronauts into orbit, as well as to the International Space Station.

SpaceX's other achievements include launching the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket into orbit in 2008 with the Falcon 1, the first private company to successfully launch and recover a spacecraft with the Dragon 1 reusable cargo spacecraft, as well as being the first private aerospace company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station when the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched on May 30, 2020.

While the achievements of Musk's companies are notable, perhaps the biggest impact Musk's endeavors might have on Earth dwellers outside of Tesla's zero emission electric cars is the SpaceX Starlink satellite-based broadband internet service.

SpaceX intends to create a "global communications system" with Starlink that Musk compared to "rebuilding the internet in space." The data transfer speeds would be much faster than traditional internet connections. Starlink will deliver high speed broadband internet to locations around the world where access has been unreliable, too expensive, or non-existent.

About Starlink

Starlink aims to deliver high-speed internet using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. The Starlink network will eventually consist of thousands of small satellites that work in combination with ground transceivers supporting high-speed broadband internet around the world.

The system proposed by privately held company SpaceX will use 4,425 satellites, according to a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2018.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai fully endorses Starlink. In 2018, he said that "Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach."

"This is the first approval of a US-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies," the FCC said in 2018.

Each Starlink satellite weighs 260 kg (573 lbs) and are designed to be compact and flat, so many satellites can neatly stacked in the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for launch. Each satellite is powered by a single flat solar panel, which are easier to integrate during the manufacturing process, Starlink says.

The satellites are also equipped with Hall thrusters powered by krypton that enable them to maneuver in space, including changing orbit. The Starlink satellites are the first-ever spacecraft powered by krypton, the company claims. 

The thousands of LEO Starlink satellites will orbit above the earth at an altitude of 550 kilometers (342 miles), well below the altitude of most satellites. You would think that thousands of SpaceX satellites orbiting the Earth will pose a safety concern if one of them fails, but that's not the case here. SpaceX has thought of this and has already addressed this problem.

SpaceX originally intended to launch the first batch of Starlink satellites at an orbit of 1,150-kilometer ( 741-miles) but in 2019 the company requested authority from the FCC to begin operating its network at a lower altitude.

The Starlink satellites will now orbit on what SpaceX calls "the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation."

At this height, the satellites will utilize their on-board propulsion system to "deorbit" over the course of a few months as they near the end of their service life. If the propulsion system becomes inoperable for any reason, the satellites will safely burn up in Earth's atmosphere within 1-5 years, SpaceX claims.

SpaceX has been granted authority by the FCC to use frequencies in the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) bands for its internet service. These lesser-used bands are also reserved for providing in-flight entertainment options on commercial airliners.

Musk also said that the Starlink service would help fund a future city on Mars, but it also might help support and fund electric automaker Tesla in the future.

For Tesla, the most important use of the Starlink service could be for connected vehicle technology that allows the company's vehicles to communicate with other vehicles, with infrastructure and connect to the cloud.

Imagine a future where millions of autonomous Tesla vehicles are connected to the Starlink network, sending data to and from the cloud using thousands of orbiting satellites. While Musk has not publicly spoken of harnessing the power of Starlink to support a global network of connected Tesla vehicles, it could happen.

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Tesla vehicles transmit and receive a massive amount of data.

Starlink Supporting Self-Driving Cars

Musk claims that Tesla is close to achieving Level-5 autonomous driving, which requires no human intervention at all. Although Musk is known to exaggerate some of Tesla's technology achievements, these highly advanced self-driving vehicles will need to be connected to the cloud, transferring terabytes of data between Tesla's ground-based fleet and powerful AI-powered processors that support autonomous driving. 

This is something that requires a low-latency, ultra-fast connection, which is something that the SpaceX Starlink network can provide. And since the network will be owned, controlled and operated entirely by SpaceX, the connection to the cloud and Tesla's vehicles can be monitored end-to-end with the highest levels of security.

Today's vehicles, including those built by Tesla, are essentially "computers on wheels." The vehicles run millions of lines of code and are capable of transmitting terabytes of data per hour. But connected cars currently rely on cellular networks to send and receive data. 

While the rollout of 5G technology may reduce latency, cellular connections are not fool-proof and are often spotty in rural locations. For self-driving vehicles that will rely on uninterrupted data connections for navigation, this could pose a problem.

One solution is that satellite receivers can be added to Tesla vehicles in the future, so each Tesla model can connect directly to the Starlink network. These connections will be highly secure, so the threat of hacking will be minimized or non-existent. That's why governments around the world rely on secure satellite communications to transmit highly sensitive data.

Another use of the Starlink service for Tesla is pushing over-the-air (OTA) software updates to its vehicles. Vehicles that support OTA updates are another technology pioneered by Tesla. However, instead of updated vehicles using cellular networks, Tesla could push updates to its entire global fleet at once via Starlink.

The Starlink internet service will span the globe with performance that far exceeds that of traditional satellite internet. Since it's space-based, the Startlink global network will be free of the limitations of ground-based systems, which makes it ideal for Tesla's vehicles capable of autonomous driving.

Other automakers are already exploring the use of satellite technology to support their future connected and self-driving vehicles. 

In March, Reuters reported that Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group was investing 2.27 billion yuan ($326 million) in a new satellite manufacturing plant, where it plans to build low-orbit satellites to provide more accurate data for self-driving cars.

Geely said low-orbit satellites would offer its vehicles high speed internet connectivity, highly precise navigation and cloud computing capabilities for autonomous driving.

Starlink's satellite network may be able to provide the same support for Tesla's future electric and connected vehicles.

Starlink is targeting a rollout of limited service in the Northern U.S. and Canada by the end of the year, then rapidly expanding to near global coverage by 2021.

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