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Your next car will update itself while you sleep, and maybe watch you too

OTA Updates
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Physical recalls will always be necessary to fix problems with a car’s hardware, but with automotive data connectivity racing ahead by leaps and bounds, there’s a lot about your car that can be updated over the air – just like your phone or tablet. It’s called OTA (over the air) updating, and it’s going to be a part of your automotive life from now on.

Automakers tell us that the average 2016 model year car has up to 100 million lines of software code resident in various systems throughout the vehicle. About 20 million of those lines of code are required just to run a standard navigation and infotainment system. And like all software, it needs to be updated regularly.

At this time, only Tesla is updating core functions remotely, but many major manufacturers are working towards their own applications.

Well, let’s amend that a little: Software that works doesn’t really need to be updated, and the software that runs your car generally works very well. But the people who make software are constantly adding features, fixing bugs, and generally making things work better. If you have a smartphone, computer, or gaming console, you already know that software updates are a fact of life.

Here’s the thing — your car is included in this, too. The tricky part? actually implementing it.  For automakers, the updating process has always been hugely expensive. The automakers had to issue a formal recall, train their dealer service technicians on how to update the car, and get you to bring the car in to have the update done. It was so expensive and so haphazard that they did it only when they absolutely had to.

But now, that’s changing a little bit. According to Forbes Business, “20 percent of vehicles sold worldwide in 2015 will include some form of embedded connectivity while the number of connected cars sold globally will grow more than sixfold to 152 million by 2020.” Modern age of car tech, here we come.

How OTA Works

Jim Pisz is the Corporate Manager of North American Business Strategy for Toyota, and he spends a lot of his time working on OTA technology.

“By the turn of the decade, every new car sold around the world will have a data communications modules. It’s not just about infotainment. It’s more about the functionality of the vehicle,” Pisz told Digital Trends. “It’s about the car telling the customer that it’s not feeling well before the customer knows. If a fault code comes up, it goes to a big data center and it’s noted as an exception. The information goes back to the dealer or back to the customer.” This kind of feature uses the same data connection that provides you with real-time navigation information and safety services.

There is a convergence that’s occurring, and it’s not just about connected vehicles,” Pisz explains. “It’s about drivetrains, it’s about autonomous, as well as the connected car. All of those things are going to come into play. This convergence is going to really change the automobile business in the long term.”

OTA Security Considerations

It’s an axiom of software security that anything people can create, other people can hack. That’s why data security is a huge consideration with connected cars generally, and OTA software updates in particular. Researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller successfully hacked several cars through their data communications modules and in some cases could take substantial control of a moving vehicle remotely. Valasek and Miller’s exploits raised concerns about inadequate security provisions throughout the industry, and prompted automakers to tighten up their safeguards.

“I can only speak to Jeep, as I haven’t looked at any other manufacturers,” Valasek told Digital Trends. “They did an effective job of patching the wireless security flaws for that given system. Hopefully after we showed that such things were possible, other manufacturers went back and investigated their own systems as well.”

There is a convergence that’s occurring, and it’s not just about connected vehicles. It’s about drivetrains, it’s about autonomous, as well as the connected car.

Valasek is correct. Across the industry and in government, data security for automobiles moved up the priority list.

“The government is as concerned as we are,” Pisz explains.  “From the technical side, we have a very closed operating system in our vehicles. It’s very difficult to get to the aspects of the operating system that actually control drive by wire or brake by wire.”

What we know about the automakers’ approach is pretty good, but far from perfect. Security by obscurity is the first step. As proprietary systems, the automakers are free to use their own encryption and keep their systems secret. They are predictably tight-lipped about exactly what that encryption might be.

“My general advice is that if you can access or interact with a device over the Internet you should probably have mechanisms to update these devices,” Valasek offers. “There will always be flaws in code. You should have a way to fix the problems without asking people to bring back their car.”

OTA Benefits

Valasek’s advice points the way to the big win that is possible with automotive OTA updates. Colin Bird is a Senior Analyst for Automotive Technology at IHS Automotive, and in a recent publication of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA), he reported that OTA could be major benefit because of the “capacity to reduce warranty costs, potentially increase overall completion rates for software-related recalls, improve customer satisfaction by eliminating trips to the dealership for software upgrades or fixes, and provide the ability to upgrade functionality and add features to automotive infotainment systems over a vehicle’s lifetime.”

OTA Updates
Only Tesla is currently updating core functions using OTA technology. Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the same paper, IHS Automotive estimated automakers could use OTA updates to realize savings up to $2.7 billion in 2015 and growing to $35 billion by 2022. Automakers are already updating navigation and infotainment systems using this technique, but updating the car’s core operating system for the engine and chassis management is a much thornier problem.

In order to update the engine management and related systems – including transmission control, braking and stability controls, adaptive cruise control, and passenger safety systems – the automaker must be absolutely certain that the update is received and implemented correctly, or the vehicle could be left inoperable.

A compromise solution is to bring the car to a dealer’s service center, and then install updates wirelessly in the dealer’s service bay. This requires much less technician time, but still requires a dealer visit. Ultimately, remote OTA updates will take over. At this time, only Tesla is updating core functions remotely, but many major manufacturers are working towards their own applications.

Data Privacy Concerns

One key thing to mention regarding OTA updates is that the door swings both ways. While your car is being updated, the potential exists for your car to report back to the automaker. Some of the data that can be reported is personal, and may be used to market to you, or potentially to challenge you.

According to Forbes Business, the number of connected cars will grow to 152 million by 2020.

According to a research paper published by IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, there is a significant risk of personal data disclosure in wireless information exchanges with your car.  The risk is primarily limited to the sale of personal data to third parties, and the paper notes that there is no governing regulation or law to prevent this in the United States.

The offices of Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts polled automakers about personal data that may be collected, and the automakers responded that various vehicles collect data including geographic locations, destinations entered into navigation systems, parking locations, distances and times traveled, vehicle speed, and sudden changes in speed, among others.

Automakers stated to the Senator that they use this data to maintain and improve customer service, address safety concerns, and for analytical market research. However, Pisz is quick to note that at Toyota, any use of personal data, and use of OTA updating in general will be entirely voluntary.

“It will be opt-in only. We won’t require it. It won’t be automatic,” Pisz says.

OTA is Coming

The economic case for OTA updating is strong enough that it will become a fact of your life in the next ten years. The economic benefits primarily accrue to the automakers, but in a keenly competitive industry any economy of scale helps drive retail prices down. Data interchange with your car will also allow the dealer to advise you that it’s time for maintenance or repair – but you won’t necessarily be required to take your car to the dealer for that work. On balance, OTA makes sense, and it works today for your mobile devices. Extending that convenience to your car is just the next logical step, provided you clearly understand what you’re opting into.

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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