Software on Wheels: Using OTA to Make Cars Better

The modern car carries more code than an average fighter jet. Software runs everything from the speedometers to braking systems, and auto-makers’ worldwide investment in technology is now close to USD 200 million. Cars have transformed from just automobiles to software on wheels.

Despite this, recalls due to software glitches are on the rise. Q/A testing misses about 15% of code errors, leading to potential hazards. Fiat Chrysler in May recalled more than five million vehicles because drivers couldn’t cancel the ‘cruise control’ mode and slow down. BMW and Audi have had similar issues last year.

OTA, a necessity

With recalls costing them millions of dollars, traditional car-makers could take a cue from the smartphone industry. Over-the-air (OTA) updates would make it possible for companies to deliver bug fixes or add new features en masse.

Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as General Motors have announced plans to offer OTA before 2020. However, they are restricted by contractual obligations to dealerships that effectively limit OTA delivery to minor infotainment updates even if it is possible to do more.

Elon Musk’s Tesla provides a demonstrable model of success in building software on wheels here. Since the company doesn’t use dealerships to sell cars, it can quickly build and issue updates to its customers. Last year, it increased the range of its cars in Florida to help people escape the effects of Hurricane Irma.

When a review found the latest Model 3’s braking distance to be less than a pickup truck, Tesla issued an update that improved the braking performance by nearly 6 metres. The company has also released some code publicly. We could soon see third-party car ‘developers’ selling patches and apps for Tesla cars.

Other OEMs could soon catch up. Mapping company Here has released OTA Connect, a software that integrates with back-end servers and delivers updates at the push of a button. OEM’s can even choose the delivery method – cellular data, WiFi, or satellite.  The open source architecture allows for standardisation across OEMs and suppliers.

Enthusiasm for the ‘software on wheels’ market is high, with the automotive OTA market is set to grow at a CAGR of 58.2% in the 2018-22 period. However, update reliability needs to be assured. A car still has many legacy systems that need to be worked around. A glitch in updates could have disastrous consequences. If we are to move towards a connected future, OTA for cars is a necessity.

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