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Evaluating Over-the-Air Vehicle Updates

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In late 2013, Tesla announced it had completed an “over-the-air” (OTA) update to the air suspension of its Model S vehicles.

Tesla is not the only vehicle manufacturer to implement OTA updates. Audi’s connect solution, Chrysler’s Uconnect, Mercedes-Benz’s mbrace, BMW’s ConnectedDrive, and Toyota’s Entune systems regularly send OTA updates to fix software glitches in their vehicle models.

According to Krishna Jayaraman, automotive and transportation industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, OTA updates are a potential game changer for OEMs to lower vehicle recall rates and trips to the service center.

Jayaraman has spent the past four years studying and managing research reports on human-machine interface, connectivity in vehicles, infotainment and telematics. He recently sat down with Ratchet+Wrench to discuss the OTA technology available right now, the potential for growth and what it all means for the aftermarket. 


Can you describe how over-the air-updates work?

To explain this, I would like to use an analogy with the OTA updates that occur in smartphones. If you have an iPhone, you’ll probably see Apple has new updates every few months. Those updates work through a central server that is connected by Apple and pushes out these specific software updates to the phone through wireless channels. When you download an app from the app store, your phone connects to the Apple server and that’s how it’s able to notify your phone about updates to the app.

Now let’s take it to an automotive scenario. If the OEM needs to send a software update for an infotainment system in the car, the OEM will have new applications that also go through wireless channels or embedded data connections to install the software.


What type of repairs can be done through these updates?

Right now, OTA updates are pretty nascent. We are looking at fixes that are directly linked to the infotainment system. For example, in 2012, Ford recalled vehicles because the human-machine interface was not working well. What that means is that people were not able to read what was on the infotainment system: The menu was cluttered, the icons were very small, and the touchscreen was not responsive. Ford sent all the users a USB stick to plug into their systems and install the update.

It’s not restricted to infotainment alone. Tesla recently did an OTA update for the plug for their charger in the Model S, which was overheating and could potentially cause a fire. This was prevented by an OTA update sent by Tesla through the embedded 3G data connection in the car or a wireless signal. Model S users then received a notice on their touchscreen alerting them of the update, which they could not opt out of.

That is where this is heading. We are looking toward functions starting from infotainment, which is at the very basic level, to bigger updates related to vehicle functions. That could be air suspension, brakes, issues related to acceleration, or engine control unit (ECU).

For example, you might have a sports car whose top speed is 350 mph and the OEM realizes that type of speed doesn’t make sense for the user. The OEM could send an update to the ECU, which could fix the error and bring the speeds down to 280 mph.

You also have advanced driver assistance systems, such as pedestrian detection or lane departure warning, which rely on millions of lines of software code and sensors. If one of the sensors doesn’t work or you have to add another function, these kinds of OTA updates can take place.


For OEMs, what is the benefit of these updates?

The first benefit is cost. Recalling a vehicle involves a major cost. Plus, it’s not easy to reach all of these users. You can’t push all the updates to all of the vehicles at the same time. Everyone has a specific time to visit the dealership and, if a customer is not aware of how critical the situation is, that can be a problem.

Additionally, each software that is built costs millions of dollars to make. When you keep changing the platform regularly, that involves a lot of cost. Many cars have at minimum 20–30 million lines of software codes, and at an average cost of $10 per line, these systems aren’t cheap. So, again, you can see how these recalls lead to huge losses.

We’ve estimated that the value of software in vehicles will increase as much as 50 percent by 2020, so that’s why it’s becoming increasingly more important for OEMs to push out these OTA updates. It’s cost effective and it decreases customer frustration with bringing the vehicle to the dealership or service center.


What is the potential for growth for OTA updates?

This boils down to a very basic topic, which is connectivity. The entire industry is talking about connected cars today. This technology has great potential. We here at Frost & Sullivan believe that by 2020, 85–90 percent of the vehicles produced will have some type of Internet connectivity. If North America is going to produce 18 million vehicles a year, 15 million of those are going to be connected.

In case you have any glitch in the software, the OEM can just push it through the Internet and it resides in the vehicle. It becomes an easy job for the OEMs.

It is not a luxury car phenomenon, which it was touted to be a couple of years back because Tesla was the one who introduced this. The luxury manufacturers will be the first to implement this, of course. But now we have names like Chrysler, GM and Toyota in the conversation. This could be a very simultaneous phenomenon in the mass marketplace, as well.


Are there any current challenges with OTA updates?

On a very basic level, when you send out software updates to vehicles, there has to be a separation between driving-critical components and nondriving-critical components. For example, an engine control unit cannot be updated while your car is in motion. The car has to be stationary and it has to have Internet access to install the upgrade. For driving-critical elements, which need to be updated, the car has to be stationary. For something that is related to infotainment, that’s not as big of a deal and could be updated while the vehicle is in motion.

Additionally, since the electrical architecture of the vehicle is quite connected, the updating process should not hinder the functioning of other ECUs in the car. This has to be carefully taken care of by the OEM so that another ECU in that running environment does not fail, causing a crash.

On the safety aspect, when you push out a software update, it has to be encrypted. If a hacker is able to get into a mission-critical upgrade related to the brakes, the update could go wrong and it might lead to crashes. Security breaches for the OEM are a very big challenge.


What do OTA updates mean for the automotive aftermarket?

The first impression that people would get is that these updates would take jobs away from service centers. But OTA updates are limited to software. If there is any mechanical or hardware failure, eventually you will end up going to the service center.

But looking toward the future, we know that software components inside the car are increasing. It’s no longer a domination of mechanical hardware, it has more to do with software and firmware. When we look at such a scenario, if the OEM is directly able to connect itself to the vehicle, the role of the service center is lessened here. We’ve seen this in Tesla, where they connect directly to the car.

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