OTA updates: what is it?


Cars have been primarily “hardware” products. The automaker builds the vehicle at a factory and the buyer buys it from a dealership.

If he wants to make other changes or improvements, the owner will usually have to take it to a mechanic or the aftermarket, or purchase the necessary parts and tools to do it himself.

In contrast, today’s vehicles are increasingly computerized and run sophisticated software that can connect to the Internet, via a built-in modem or via Wi-Fi. This makes it much easier to make changes via over-the-air (OTA) updates, much like updating apps on a smartphone or updating software on a laptop.

While the basics of wireless updates are shared between cars and other computing devices, what can actually be updated still varies considerably from model to model. This includes everything from a simple map update for the in-car satellite navigation system, to upgrading the car’s driving performance, to adding entirely new features.

How do OTA updates work and how often do they occur?

Much like the actual scope of what can be updated, the process of updating your car and how often updates are released varies widely by car manufacturer.

At a fundamental level, the automaker will upload software updates to a central server, which the car’s on-board computers can access through a built-in 4G / 5G modem, or when connected to the internet via Wi-Fi.

If a car detects that an update is available, the driver will have the option to download it. Depending on various factors such as how the car is connected to the internet (as mentioned above) and the type of software the car is running, it may be able to download an update in the background while it is running. driving, or the car may need to be stationary.

In many cases, as with various Tesla vehicles and BMW models running newer software versions of operating systems 7.0 and 8.0, the car cannot be used at all while installing an update.

To compensate for this, most automakers allow the driver to schedule when they want the update installed. For example, the car can download an update in the background (and be used normally), but the driver can then schedule the installation to happen overnight when they know the vehicle will be parked and Not used.

The frequency of updates also varies considerably between models. For many entry-level vehicles, the only part of the car that can be updated OTA is the integrated satellite navigation system maps. These updates can be published on an annual or semi-annual basis. Other manufacturers may release updates more frequently. Tesla, for example, rolls out updates almost every month.

What can be updated and which cars have OTA updates?

In today’s vehicles, many parts of a car, including the engine (or motors of an electric vehicle), battery cooling systems, brakes, infotainment system and other aspects are controlled by computers or associated electronic modules. The scope of what an OTA update can do depends on whether these modules were designed to be updated over the Internet.

As mentioned before, for some cars the only aspect that can be updated are the maps of the integrated satellite navigation system. For other cars a wide variety of subsystems can be updated.

Polestar (associated with Volvo) for example recently released updates for its Polestar 2 sedan which improved the range of the car, and for the Long Range versions, its performance as well. Tesla went so far as to update the ABS (anti-lock braking) system of its Model 3 sedan and improve braking performance from 97 km / h (60 mph) of around 5.7 meters, after posting to the United States. Consumer Reports criticized the braking performance of the car in 2018.

The expansion of the range of electronic modules that can be updated via the Internet also gives drivers the option of unlocking or adding functionality over the air. BMW, for example, has a “ConnectedDrive App Store” through which drivers can download software OTA to activate features such as the high beam assistant or the BMW Drive Recorder on-board camera function.

In addition to some models from Polestar, Volvo (such as the XC40 Recharge EV), BMW and Tesla, other automakers who have introduced models with a wide variety of OTA upgradeable systems include vehicles equipped with MBUX from Mercedes-Benz (such as the new EQS) and Ford vehicles equipped with the Sync 4 infotainment system. Latest VW ID. 3 and identity document. 4 models (not currently sold in Australia) also have OTA software updates.

The upcoming Ford Ranger has a new infotainment system, and Ford says the car overall includes over 50 electronic modules that can be updated OTA.

This could mean that Ford could release various OTA updates during the model’s life cycle, allowing future owners to download new features or make improvements to everything from the infotainment system to the ability to drive on. and off-road the car.

Since the Ranger is one of the two best-selling vehicles in Australia, any OTA capability will help introduce the technology to more people.

Potential advantages and disadvantages of OTA updates

As stated before, the biggest benefit of OTA updates is the ability to make the car more durable by improving it after it is built. OTA updates now give automakers the ability to improve the car’s safety, usability, functionality and performance over time.

All of this can help ensure that a car stays up to date with current technology despite having an older build date, and in turn, this could also have a positive contribution to the car’s resale value.

On the other hand, knowing that things can be improved later, automakers can be incentivized to sell what is a minimum viable product with the promise of further improvements or full feature additions.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is to reiterate the Tesla Model 3 braking example. It is commendable that Tesla was able to improve braking performance (and therefore safety) easily and after the cars were built, and that customers weren’t bothered by having to take their vehicles to a service center or go through a recall process.

However, if Tesla did not have the ability to perform OTA updates, it arguably would have been forced to optimize and test braking performance from the start, rather than postponing it to something that could be. improved later.

A similar situation applied to VW’s ID.3 electric vehicle. The first batches of these cars suffered from a rushed development process and numerous software issues, which the German automaker promised to resolve via OTA updates.

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