With benefits — and risks — software updates are coming to the car

Audi MMI Touch Infotainment Over-the-Air
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

Are you ready to have your car regularly updated like your smartphone? Well, get ready because it’s happening. From dashboards to door locks, cars are about to become as changeable as your iPhone’s home screen.

Automatic over-the-air updates have been happening for years on laptops, phones, even TVs. But in the automotive industry it’s been relatively rare. Tesla was a significant exception.

Starting in the fall of 2012, the electric car company added features like the ability to save driver profile settings by name and a coast function that let the EV roll forward without having to put your foot on the accelerator. That same year, other automakers were testing the OTA airwaves.

“… Cars were basically air-gapped computers. Once they became connected, the threat went from zero to 100.”

Mercedes-Benz, for example, updated its Mbrace2 in-dash system in the SL roadster to accept OTA updates in 2012. Most of those updates were focused on non-critical infotainment features, like mirrored apps, but it was a significant step for the notoriously circumspect German car company. Others followed suit, even safety-conscious Volvo.

“We started in 2015 with the XC90,” explained Volvo’s Niclas Gyllenram, “and now we do it for all modes of the entertainment systems.”

Today, Ford, FCA (formally known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), and others perform over-the-air updates on a regular basis. Most, however, only have to do with non-essential systems, such as navigation map updates and sound system changes. In general, mainstream automakers have steered clear of updating safety systems or features directly related to driving. For the most part, they require owners to come in to the dealership and have a service technician perform any critical system software updates. And for good reason.

Volvo XC90
The XC90 was the first Volvo car designed to support OTA updates to it’s entertainment system software.

“Before cars were connected, they were basically air-gapped computers,” explained Dan Sahar of security firm Upstream. In other words, a lack of connectivity made it nearly impossible for hackers to attack a car. “But once cars became connected, the threat went from zero to 100,” he said.

Sahar and other security experts point to the infamous Jeep hack. In 2015, researchers showed how someone could track and hack a 2014 Jeep Cherokee thanks to security gaps in Sprint’s network and the on-board infotainment systems in the SUVs. Argus Cyber Security gave us a firsthand demonstration of the threat, turning the windshield wipers on and suddenly braking a Jeep while we were driving the SUV.

According to NHTSA, today only 62 percent of recalled cars ever get repaired.

With such possible dangers, then, why are car companies pursuing OTA updates?

“It’s a definite benefit,” said Dean Martin of telematics company Harman. “Over-the-air updates can fix bugs, do recalls, and actually enhance security,” he explained.

Rather than having to return to the dealership every time a problem is detected, automakers can push OTA updates directly out to owners to perform fixes. That could improve safety. According to NHTSA, today only 62 percent of recalled cars ever get repaired–even after owners have been sent multiple notices. OTA could eliminate many of these compliance problems, and save millions of dollars in maintenance work in the process.

Tesla Model 3
Infotainment screen in the Tesla Model 3 Miles Branman/Digital Trends

And anyone who has updated their car’s software using a USB stick knows it’s more like a conjurer’s trick: Open the driver’s door, turn off the ignition three times, and then turn on accessory mode to reboot the system. Not exactly intuitive. Over the air updates could obviate all that.

Gil Reiter, a vice president at SafeRide explained that being online also allows companies to “uncover unknown vulnerabilities and create updated policies to mitigate them, policies that are updated in the car over-the-air.”

“The key is being cloud-based” and that means being connected, emphasized Upstream’s Sahar. “You need to look for anomalies,” he said, and that includes monitoring back-end data center systems where a single hack could potentially lead to access to hundreds of thousands of cars.

“There are more than 100 million lines of code in a vehicle, so it’s a critical challenge to keep it up to date and safe.”

Over-the-air updates can also be used to enable some remarkable improvements and changes in a vehicle, from making transmission adjustments to tweaking performance and fuel efficiency. They can even be used to adjust brake responsiveness, as Tesla demonstrated after reviewers at Consumer Reports complained about the poor stopping distances on the Model 3.

However, the level of complexity of such updates makes them trickier than simply updating an app on a smartphone.

“There are more than 100 million lines of code in a vehicle, so it’s a critical challenge to keep it up to date and safe,” said Zohar Fox, CEO of Aurora Labs.

So, it’s no surprise that automotive software changes can be fraught with complications, from safety to reliability concerns.

Engineers in charge of Buick’s powertrain explained, for example, that they can’t simply decide to change a transmission shift point on its SUVs without consulting with other engineers in charge of, say, meeting fuel efficiency standards. Then there are issues about how such a change could affect wear and tear on other parts, all the way down to the tires. So, months of testing may be needed before even a small software change can be transmitted to hundreds of thousands of cars.

2019 Lexus ES
2019 Lexus ES Chris Chin/Digital Trends

And some over-the-air updates intended to steer clear of critical car systems have still done more harm than good.

Earlier this year, FCA sent out an OTA update for its Uconnect infotainment systems in 2017 and 2018 Jeep and Dodge Durango models. Some customers then discovered their in-dash units had gone into a vicious cycle of endless reboots, effectively disabling the entertainment system — as well as some emergency assistance services.

Back in 2016, Lexus effectively bricked the Enform infotainment systems in some of its models with an OTA update. And even Tesla has run into glitches with software updates delivered wirelessly.

The cars themselves will become rolling sensors, sending camera, parking, and weather information back to the cloud to share with other vehicles.

Nevertheless, over-the-air updates are poised to become ubiquitous in new cars because the advantages outweigh the hazards.

“It will make people’s lives easier on the road, adding convenience and more functionality,” said Ky Tang, executive director of strategy at Telenav.

The company already provides connected infotainment and navigation services to automakers, and is working to offer additional services such as ordering and paying for fast food while you’re on the road so it’s ready to pick up when you arrive. Telenav is also working with parking companies so that, with connected services, drivers will be able to find (and pay for) available parking based on over-the-air updates without wasting time and gas searching for a spot. Such updates could in turn reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

And it’s not just live traffic and up-to-date maps that need to be sent to cars online, explained Tang. The cars themselves will become rolling sensors, sending camera, parking, and weather information back to the cloud to share with other vehicles.

Even conveniences like Amazon’s Alexa in the car, already offered to a degree on models ranging from BMW to Ford to Nissan, mean having a constant connection to the cloud — and enabling over-the-air changes. And, with the anticipated debut of autonomous cars in the future, OTA updates will be a necessity. After all, if you don’t want to be bothered driving the car, you’re not likely to want to waste time taking it in to the dealership for a fix, either.

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