Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates: How Automakers Are Betting on Software to Keep Up With the Pace of Innovation

Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates: How Automakers Are Betting on Software to Keep Up With the Pace of Innovation

2024 Silverado EV
2024 Silverado EV RST

At what point does a car become more of a computer on wheels? Computer integration in the automotive industry is nothing new, however it’s accelerating at breakneck speed. Both software and hardware become outdated in no time at all. Is there a way for car buying habits to steer clear of the two-year replacement cycle that smartphones have fallen into? 

As soon as computers grew wheels (in the form of electric vehicles), forward-thinking automakers launched over-the-air (OTA) update capabilities. Tesla was the first to do it, and now the likes of Ford, GM and Volkswagen are among the legacy OEMs marketing their vehicles as OTA-ready. Although, not all who’ve tried it have succeeded without hiccups. Here’s how OTA updates are changing car ownership, and what’s to come in the years ahead. 

What Is an Over-the-Air (OTA) Update?

EV charging costs

You know when your phone gives you a push notification about scheduling a time to install the latest software updates and bug fixes? Well, cars can do that too now. OTA updates are not just for software fixes. With OTA capability, vehicles can receive enhanced performance and safety improvements via a simple wireless internet connection. 

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OTA updates eliminate the need for making a service center visit for many simple fixes and updates. The updates are sent and downloaded via access to a cloud-based server with a wireless internet connection. Many updates are free of charge, and all safety enhancements are at no cost. However, we are entering a new era where OTA presents a new revenue stream for car makers. Everyone’s getting in on the subscription business, and the auto industry is no different. There are two kinds of OTA updates: those for infotainment, and those for vehicle performance and control. They may target either software or firmware, the latter of which required more advanced security protocols to implement.

Infotainment OTA Updates

Head up display Kia EV6
2022 Kia EV6

Infotainment updates improve the user experience. A classic example is how Volkswagen ID.4 owners are pleading for an improved infotainment performance after the original equipment was delivered with a laggy touchscreen and haptic buttons. Fortunately for ID.4 owners, the car is among VW’s first generation of OTA-capable models, and a fix is on the way. 

Sometimes, OTA revisions cause frustration and even anger from customers. Tesla recently pushed the Version 11 user interface to all of it’s vehicles via over-the-air download. The result was strong critical feedback from customers, most of whom were complaining about the automaker trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Vehicle Performance and Control OTA Updates

GM Ultium battery
GM Ultium Battery and Powertrain

How is it that the 2019 Tesla Model 3 has a quicker 0-60 time now than it had when it was delivered to customers? Or how Tesla vehicles can gain or lose access to the controversially-named ‘full self-driving’ based on driver safety scores? With OTA capability, automakers can send everything from a power boost to a pedestrian avoidance feature to cars already in driver’s hands. 

Vehicle performance and control updates can include updates to the vehicle’s powertrain, chassis systems, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Of course, updates to these critical components of a vehicle are only possible when the components are electronically controlled and operated. For this reason, an older car model can’t be retrofitted to become OTA capable. 

Examples of fixes and improvements automakers have installed via OTA

  • Tesla offers an ‘acceleration boost’ for the popular 2022 Model Y that lowers the 0-60 time from 4.8 to 4.2 seconds
  • Tesla regularly updates the ‘full self-driving’ upgrade, which is currently in beta testing
  • The Cadillac Escalade has received GM’s first big OTA update to improve the SuperCruise hands-free driver assistance (ADAS) technology
  • Ford delayed the release of a major OTA update for the BlueCruise hands-free driver assistance (ADAS) technology 
  • Volkswagen released the first of a series of promised software updates targeted at improving the infotainment experience

Which Automakers Offer OTA Updates?

Tesla was the first automaker to roll out over-the-air capabilities with the launch of the Model S in 2012. After years of skepticism from the competition, here are the other OEMs that have announced or commenced OTA updates in their vehicles:

AutomakerOTA-Upgraded Components
AudiNavigation
BMWInfotainment, optional features
FordADAS, several other components
General MotorsNearly every vehicle component on EVs, major components on combustion vehicles
HondaInfotainment
HyundaiInfotainment, voice assistance
Jaguar/Land RoverInfotainment, charging capabilities
LucidNearly every vehicle component and system
Mercedes-BenzInfotainment, navigation
NissanInfotainment
PolestarNearly every vehicle component and system
PorscheLimited functions
RivianNearly every vehicle component and system
Stellantis (FCA)Infotainment
TeslaNearly every vehicle component and system
ToyotaInfotainment
VolkswagenSeveral vehicle components and systems on EVs
VolvoNearly every vehicle component and system

Are OTA Updates Safe?

2023 Cadillac Lyriq
2023 Cadillac Lyriq

We’re used to having virus protection on our computers. If we don’t, bad guys will find a way to compromise the computer and access personal information. Are the same security and privacy concerns applicable to automotive OTA updates? 

Since OTA updates require a wireless internet connection to install, there are risks for malware and the unintended release of personal information. The best way to protect yourself from these risks is to only accept OTA updates while connected to a secure network, such as the wifi network at your home. Don’t try updating your car at the fast food or coffee shop drive thru!

What’s Next?

EV charging costs
2022 Volkswagen ID.4

Over-the-air updates are about to take the auto industry by storm. Now that major OEMs are proudly marketing their ability to improve the user experience (which itself sounds like they’re selling more of a tech product than a car), a paradigm shift is at hand. Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess recently told The Verge about VW’s plan for a reimagined future where the relationship between the automaker and customers is more intimate and dynamic with the power of OTA updates and new ways of customizing the ownership experience.

Imagine: for a long time, we did not have access to a customer as a company. The customer access was exclusively with our retail network. What we experienced over time was that people walk away from our retail outlets and go to third parties to substitute some of the spare parts or buy new tires. Now, we have a new opportunity to be in direct contact with the customer, which is totally new for us.

New Revenue Streams for Automakers

Not only is the largest automaker in the world committing to OTA capability, the likes of Ford, GM and even tech-cautious Toyota are joining the bandwagon too. Will OTA updates remain a free upgrade for millions of car owners? Unfortunately, that’s already slipping away. Tesla offers acceleration boost upgrades for its popular 2022 Model Y for $2,000, and Toyota recently tried making customers pay for remote start, a feature that is OTA-controlled. 

Even the CEO over at Volkswagen Group acknowledges the new money-making avenues made possible by software updates, telling The Verge that eventually, customers will have to pay for what they want.

We have that revenue in mind for sure as well. Customers will be prepared for some features they didn’t buy at the start, probably after a few years or after a few months — even if they consider taking another option or another software feature, the customers would be prepared to pay a monthly fee or a one-time expenditure.”

YAA’s Take

There are advantages and disadvantages of OTA update capabilities, but it seems that the advantages far outweigh any negatives that may come with this game-changing technology. As Tesla has shown the industry, there’s a future not too far away when most recalls may be fixed via a quick overnight update, and vehicles get better over time, helping them to retain resale value. Nevertheless, we’ll approach this industry change with caution and closely monitor how automakers roll out OTA updates in the months and years ahead. 

Are you ready to treat your vehicle more like a smartphone than a means of transportation? What do you think the outcome of this major industry shift will be for consumers, dealers and automakers? Will dealerships falter without the steady stream of vehicle service that they’re used to? Only time will tell. 

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