Over-the-Air (OTA)updates are set to become one of the most significant developments for the automotive industry in the next generation of cars. Mercedes-Benz and NVIDIA are working together on solutions that require OTA updates to function properly. The newest Ford F-150 was unveiled last week and also includes OTA capabilities.

It might seem like a technology that matters to only the manufacturer or tech-savvy people, but it affects everyone, including dealership staff. It’s important to understand the high-level aspects of OTA tech that’s already here for Tesla and a few others, and it will be coming shortly for most carmakers. 

Why Over-the-Air Updates?

The auto industry has made significant strides in developments that aren’t immediately visible over the years. In just a few short decades, cars have gone from two modules – a powertrain or engine control module and a body control module – to dozens. Most aspects of a car are now electronically controlled or monitored to ensure safety and efficiency.

updatesBut what happens when the software or firmware has a flaw or is out of date? In October 2019, General Motors released a recall for braking systems on four-wheel-drive trucks to correct a software problem that could initiate the brakes erroneously, causing an accident. It affected more than 650,000 vehicles worldwide. Customers were required to visit a dealership to have the affected module reprogrammed with the correction. It’s the same structure for all recalls of this nature for all manufacturers without OTA updates.

The problem with traditional recall campaigns is that a portion of the vehicles will never be updated. Ownership records may have an old or incorrect address. A business may not have time to take a vehicle out of service and the recall is never performed. Or, a total loss may be repaired and put back on the road without critical safety updates completed. Manufacturers track completion rates for every recall, but some simply never get done.

With an OTA update, a vehicle doesn’t need to be brought into the dealership. So long as there is a cellular connection available, the update can be performed while the vehicle is parked in a garage, lot, or driveway completely hands-free. 

What OTA Updates are For

Recalls are one facet of OTA updates but there’s more that they can do. In Tesla’s case, OTA updates allow the tech-advanced carmaker to implement new features remotely like the ability for Autopilot to stop at a crosswalk. The same is true for other navigation, ADAS systems, and other safety systems.

While visually nothing needs to change for OTA updates to be present, every model’s platform needs to be completely redesigned to make it work. Engineers not only need to make it possible for a vehicle’s modules to access their network remotely but safely as well. Typical CANBUS networks in vehicles aren’t secure enough for connected cars. However, almost all new models released in the coming years will have OTA capabilities.

How It Affects Auto Retail

Car sales wouldn’t see to be affected at first, but OTA updates are a fantastic feature to attract safety-conscious and tech-savvy buyers. Safety-centric people will be comforted to know that their vehicle will automatically update rather than needing to visit the dealership for the procedure. Tech-savvy shoppers will be excited to know that their vehicle may eventually be updated with new tech as it comes out with little to no expense.

The service department might notice a decrease in traffic, however. While reprogramming recalls are less than an hour of income for the department, it provides an opportunity to re-engage an owner who had defected and to emphasize the importance of a supporting dealer. As well, that visit is a chance to capture work that might’ve gone elsewhere.

Like cassette decks went to CD players then to digital music, OTA updates are the natural progression on our way to connected cars and safe autonomous driving. It benefits dealers to consider how emerging tech can play a part in how they do business and spark ideas for communicating with their customers.


Did you enjoy this article from Jason Unrau? Read other articles from him here.

Car Biz Today, the official resource of the retail automotive industry.

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