What Are Over the Air Updates for Cars?

Jessica Shea Choksey | Mar 22, 2021

An over-the-air (OTA) update for a car is a software improvement that a car company sends to your vehicle through wireless means. 

Over the Air Software Update for a Car

These days, cars are practically computer processors on wheels run by a series of electronic control units that oversee everything from the powertrain to navigation. OTA updates allow automakers to quickly, conveniently, and automatically issue current and future operating system (O/S) refreshes to a vehicle in much the same way that a smartphone receives an O/S upgrade from its cellular provider. 

But, like any new technology in its early phases, OTA updates have a long way to go before realizing their full potential.

What are Over-the-Air Updates?

Product manufacturers use OTA updates to deliver critical information to devices and ensure that all software is properly working. 

For vehicles, OTA updates eliminate the need to visit a dealership service center for owners to enjoy the latest version of the software powering various systems. OTA updates are sent via a wireless connection and installed automatically.

There are two primary categories of OTA updates for cars: infotainment and drive control. Infotainment updates refresh map information, supply audio upgrades, and add new interfaces, app versions, streaming services, features, and more. Infotainment updates improve the in-car experience but are not mission-critical.

The second type, drive control OTA updates, affect a vehicle's ability to operate safely and properly as it moves down the road. These updates can include system enhancements or corrections to powertrain systems, chassis systems, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These updates are generally considered critical or required.

How does an Over-the-Air Update Work?

For a vehicle to be updateable, it needs connectivity and onboard hardware that gives it this capability. For the latter, vehicles are equipped with a telematics control unit (TCU), not to be confused with a vehicle's transmission control unit. A TCU is the primary device that oversees anything transmitted to the vehicle over the air. It wirelessly connects the vehicle to cloud services over a cellular network.

The TCU collects telemetry data from the vehicle, such a geographical position, speed, vector, engine data, and connectivity strength. The TCU consists of a satellite navigation unit, which keeps track of the vehicle's location coordinates; an external interface for mobile communication (LTE, 5G); an electronic processing unit; and memory to store information about the vehicle's sensor data. 

Together, these components allow OTA updates to happen.

Over-the-Air Update Advantages

OTA updates are beneficial in several ways:

  • No in-person recalls: There are more software-related recalls than ever before. An OTA-serviced recall could mean no dealer visit for the owner.
  • Time and money savings: Besides saving time for the vehicle owner, OTA updates can mean significant savings for the automaker in labor costs.
  • Features: With OTA feature updates, a vehicle can become better-equipped as it ages. This would imply a slower rate of depreciation. And in some cases, OTA-added features and capabilities may actually increase the value of a vehicle.
  • Compliance/Safety: As new rules and standards are introduced, especially in autonomous driving, OTA update capability can quickly address these issues with as little delay as possible.

Over-the-Air Update Challenges

There are some areas of OTA updates that could prove challenging for the methodology. These include:

  • Dealer service inspections: Although service departments may save money in labor costs due to OTA updates, this also means dealerships will have fewer opportunities to inspect vehicles and recommend routine or necessary maintenance.
  • Security concerns: Since OTA updates utilize a wireless connection, there are risks such as malware and personal information exposure. However, using a secured wireless connection can help reduce these risks.

Summary

For both car owners and automakers, OTA updates are a win-win in most cases. As vehicles become more technologically advanced and connected, the need and demand for OTA updates will continue to go up. With that, so will the convenience and efficiency of making cars better, safer, and more compliant in every way.

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