Electric Cars

Over-the-Air Updates and Why They're Awesome

February 9, 2022

Why Does My Car Need Updates?

You’ve probably had the experience of plugging in your mobile phone in the evening, going to sleep, and waking up to something slightly unfamiliar. Provided we let them, our phones regularly update themselves with bug fixes, security updates, and new features. While we’re idle, they’re using our WiFi networks to (mostly) improve performance or the user experience.

Cars haven’t offered such updates for the majority of their existence. Usually, the absolute best experience we have with a car is when it’s brand-new, and that experience slowly deteriorates over time as mechanical components wear down or fail, and maintenance and repair costs rise. Adding new features or improving performance usually means spending a lot of money on bolted-on mechanical upgrades and hours of labor.

With the advent of increasingly sophisticated electronic systems in the automotive world, we’re seeing a seismic shift in the way that a car behaves, especially over time. Over the last 20 years, software has evolved to dominate the user experience of any vehicle, with electronically-tunable throttle response, transmission programming, suspension stiffness, and even sound – never mind the exponential improvement in the infotainment systems in our dashboards.

The advent of electric cars has supercharged this trend, and opened up new possibilities for vehicle manufacturers to further change and enhance the behavior of our cars. As our cars become more technology devices than just mechanical devices, we’ll see a huge growth in the availability of new functions and improvements.

These updates will increasingly be delivered “over the air,” using modern WiFi and cellular networks in a manner similar to our phones, rather than requiring a visit to a dealership, and a technician to perform a manual update over several hours.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect in the next few years.

Software or Firmware Over-the-Air

Over the air updates can be roughly divided into two categories: software over-the-air updates (SOTA), which cover the general categories of bug fixes, improvements, and new features, and firmware over-the-air updates (FOTA), which affect the main system software governing the way a vehicle behaves, and can fundamentally affect the way your car drives. The distinction is akin to your phone downloading a small security patch overnight, compared to a whole new version of its operating system, which is a much longer and more intensive process to load.

Put in a different way, firmware updates will bring about more significant changes in the way your electric vehicle drives. For example, in early 2021, Volvo and Polestar released an update that delivered a significant increase in charging speed, longer driving range, and an update to the Android Automotive operating system that powers the infotainment system in the Polestar 2 and XC40 Recharge electric vehicles.

Almost all vehicle manufacturers now offer some form of SOTA, provided the vehicle has access to the Internet, either via an internal SIM card, through your mobile phone, or a connected WiFi network. Very few manufacturers have the ability to update firmware over the air, and almost all of them, Tesla, Nio, and Lucid among them, are new electric vehicle startup brands. So-called “legacy” vehicle manufacturers may still require a dealer visit for new firmware.

New Features for Free

The best part about over-the-air updates is that you’ll often get new features and improved functionality for free without having to lift a finger, or visit a dealer.

Most common OTA updates relate to vehicle infotainment systems, which we interact with every day. Almost every vehicle manufacturer now has some kind of OTA update to keep the infotainment interface fresh. This can include updates to the navigation system’s maps, as well as adding better interfaces for your smartphone. The Uconnect operating system present in Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram vehicles, recently added Alexa and CarPlay over-the-air. Hyundai has also released over-the-air improvements to navigation and voice assistance features.

BMW, which began offering over-the-air updates in 2018, has ramped up its updates to include infotainment systems, as well as their vehicles’ advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as active cruise control, lane departure warning, and more.

British brands Jaguar and Land Rover both operate on the same electronic architecture, and offer OTA updates to infotainment systems as well as the charging systems in all-electric vehicles. Updates have been released to improve vehicle charging performance through the battery control module.

Outside the EV startups, General Motors and Toyota probably have the greatest ambitions for over-the-air updates. GM’s new Ultifi software platform enables updates to nearly every vehicle control module, not just infotainment, and promises more frequent and seamless OTA updates over time. Toyota’s Arene operating system, introduced in late 2021, allows new features to be installed in a car’s existing hardware over the air and will provide a platform for third-party developers to create new software.

Upgrades You’ll Pay For

While many smaller upgrades and fixes may come at no charge, ultimately, automakers will be charging you for more substantial updates, either on a flat-fee basis or with a subscription. As traditional “after sales” (parts and service) declines due to fewer moving parts and simpler mechanical systems in electric vehicles, car brands will be looking to make up for lost revenue by selling features and benefits over the air.

Mercedes-Benz is one of the front-runners in the race to commercialize over-the-air updates. The new EQS, sort of the electric equivalent of the technology-flagship S-class, offers a number of pay-for-play features. For instance, you can activate the car’s front-facing camera as a dashcam, enable a “beginner driver mode” that limits acceleration and power, or even enhance the rear-wheel steering function to tighten the vehicle’s turning circle. Mercedes-AMG customers can purchase the AMG Track Pace app for detailed performance logging.

Over in Munich, rivals BMW have begun to roll out similar “pay for play” features. The brand generated some negative publicity in 2020 when Apple CarPlay became a subscription service, a decision BMW quickly reversed. However, in Europe, the brand is offering adaptive cruise control, adaptive suspension, and adaptive high-beams for the headlights as OTA options. Physical or virtual buttons in a car not equipped with the feature prompts a visit to the online BMW Store.

Your Car’s Specifications are No Longer Set in Stone

The upshot of OTA updates means that the ability to improve and upgrade cars over time will lengthen their usable lifecycles, and provide subsequent owners who purchase them as used cars the ability to customize and upgrade them to fit their taste and needs.

While some of these upgrades may cost you, it’s nice to know that driving a technologically-advanced vehicle, and particularly an EV, opens you to a world where your car will actually get better over time.