Car over-the-air updates can fix problems on the fly and improve your vehicle over time. However, OTA updates come with pros and cons.
Depending on the car you drive, you take it to the dealer for repair when something breaks or if you get a recall notice. But on a newer car or an electric car you get an OTA update and the vehicle will update itself.
These updates happen automatically, right from your home, allowing car manufacturers to make changes to a vehicle quickly and easily. I don’t know about you, but it’s a lot better than dealing with the “theft.”
Now that more car manufacturers are taking advantage of this technology, car buyers have many questions. So here’s what you need to know about car over-the-air updates, how they work and what to expect from your next vehicle.
How Automotive OTA Updates Work
These days, cars are basically a computer full of hardware and software similar to a smartphone. And just like your iPhone gets iOS updates or your PC gets the latest Windows software, cars are now starting to get the same OTA updates.
Car OTA updates fix problems, add or change features and make changes to your vehicle without going to the dealer or a service center. These updates come wirelessly, over-the-air, with a wireless connection such as 4G/5G or Wi-Fi. Updates on cars usually download and install themselves automatically.
There are two main types of updates in two different categories. Your vehicle will receive software-over-the-air (SOTA) or firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) updates. New software is more common than upgraded firmware.
Car SOTA vs. FOTA updates
With an OTA software, you get updates and improvements to the car’s user interface, screen, maps, companion apps and things like that. Just like your phone has quick app updates or full device upgrades that come as major releases and make significant changes.
Automotive SOTA updates typically change the experience and are non-security related, while FOTA updates address critical drive systems.
Think of it like this; software is more for the user experience, while firmware is for the computer system’s ability to operate the car safely, correctly and within legal limits. For example, Tesla recently released a massive holiday software update (SOTA) with upgrades to its infotainment system, climate controls, software interface and added Steam so owners can play PC games while a car charges.
Although software updates can change a vehicle’s ability to drive, brake and operate, they are usually not critical updates. A critical system update will come through a firmware upgrade. Companies like Tesla and Rivian can easily release firmware upgrades, while most car manufacturers essentially release SOTA updates.
To send an OTA update to a vehicle, it needs connectivity (such as Wi-Fi or 5G) and on-board hardware, also known as a (TCU) telematics control unit. These computers talk to the manufacturer, like Tesla, and accept software and firmware updates. Most automakers are automakers, not software companies, and that’s why they’re lagging behind in this regard. It is also what currently gives Tesla an advantage in the market.
Car over-the-air updates and recalls
As more vehicles rely on software for everything, we’re starting to see some confusion regarding recalls. On an older model, when an owner receives a recall letter, they usually take the vehicle to the dealer for repairs or updates.
When there’s a safety-related problem, NHTSA issues a “safety recall,” even if the automaker doesn’t have to physically fix anything. This is confusing and the legal gray area will only grow as more people use electric vehicles.
On newer cars, especially electric vehicles, many “recalls” can be easily fixed via a software update. For example, Tesla issued 17 recalls in 2022, which sounds like a lot. However, all of these were quick software updates and only one required a physical hardware fix.
Manufacturers can make changes remotely thanks to onboard devices and computers on modern vehicles. Tesla is receiving a lot of negative press in the media because of the recalls, but as mentioned by Electrekthey are usually just quick software updates.
For example, Toyota recalled my Tacoma due to the turn signal bulbs being too hot and melting the headlight plastic. It is a physical solution. On the other hand, Tesla issues many recalls, but when the NHTSA safety recall notice goes out, there is already an OTA software update hitting vehicles.
While OTA updates won’t completely eliminate the need to go to a dealer, queuing, dropping off the car and waiting days for a repair will start to happen less and less.
Pros and Cons of Car OTA Updates
Like anything, there are pros and cons to getting OTA updates for cars. Owners can save time and money by avoiding the dealer, and dealers can save money on maintenance and labor costs. By fixing things externally, everyone wins.
Another benefit is getting new features on your vehicle. Rivian recently added a bunch of useful software controls to its electric truck and SUV, but that update also increased its range. With car OTA technology, your vehicle can and will improve over time. OTAs allow for rapid technological advances, including self-driving and other autonomous modes.
However, there are many disadvantages associated with connected cars. The first is privacy, as manufacturers know everything about what you do, where you go and how you drive. We do not know how our data is used or collected. Security risks are also a concern, and a teenager recently hacked over two dozen Tesla cars and was able to make them drive off autonomously. Yep.
Another downside is that manufacturers can make changes in minutes with a quick OTA update, for better or for worse. We’re seeing brands like Mercedes-Benz lock EV performance behind a paywall and make owners pay an annual subscription fee for increased performance.
During the wildfires in California a few years ago, Tesla unlocked the battery in cars and temporarily gave owners more range from a fully charged battery. Why doesn’t the car always have that range? Imagine a gas-powered car that gets 30 MPG, but a company that limits it to 20 MPG unless you sign up and pay for an “MPG subscription.” Yuck!
Another potential downside is that technology doesn’t always work as expected, especially software updates. How often does a new iOS update break your phone, change features, or cause problems? Is that where the cars are going?
Will your next car have OTA updates?
Enabling OTA updates for cars is a complex process. Automakers must collaborate with emerging software teams, cybersecurity specialists, government, wireless providers, app developers and vehicle owners. Software-defined vehicles (SDVs) are quickly becoming mainstream, and your next new car will likely be capable of at least some form of OTA updates.
Dozens of automakers have started using OTA software and firmware updates over the past 5-10 years, and that number is only going to rise. As vehicles become more advanced, connected and smart, the need for automatic OTA updates will continue to increase. Our cars will improve over time, but they’re just one more gadget in our everyday lives that will eventually need the latest software release.
In conclusion, OTA updates for cars are here to stay and will benefit both car owners and car manufacturers. Aside from some obvious drawbacks, it’s a win-win for just about everyone involved.