According to management consultancy, BearingPoint, the modern connected car contains 100 million lines of code—that’s more than NASA’s space shuttle.
According to management consultancy, BearingPoint, the modern connected car contains 100 million lines of code—that’s more than NASA’s space shuttle.
( Source: Adobe Stock)

SOTA The pros and cons of Software Over-the-Air (SOTA) updates in cars

Author / Editor: Jamie Thomson / Erika Granath

What if you never had to take your car to a repair garage again? With software-over-the-air updates, remote fixes and system upgrades are becoming the reality for connected cars.

From updating the controls on your dashboard, to enhancing the security of your central locking system, automatic software updates mark the next phase in connected car technology.

According to management consultancy, BearingPoint, the modern connected car contains 100 million lines of code—that’s more than NASA’s space shuttle. And research from IHS Markit reports that software-over-the-air updates will save automakers $35 billion in 2022.

But what does this mean for drivers? Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of over-the-air updates.

What is an over-the-air-software update?

An over-the-air (OTA) update is the delivery of new software or data through wireless technology. Smartphones receive these updates all the time, as new operating system features are deployed to individual devices.

In vehicles, the emergence of Internet of Things (IoT) has made it possible for automotive manufacturers to use OTA updates for connected vehicles.

Software-over-the-air works when a manufacturer sends a file directly to a vehicle for download via WiFi or a mobile network. Once the file is downloaded, either directly by the vehicle, or by the driver via Bluetooth, the new feature is updated in the vehicle’s operating system. Typically, the type of updates that are sent over-the-air, include software that controls moving parts and user interfaces for entertainment systems.

Tesla was the first car company to apply OTA software updates in 2012 to its Model S vehicle, adding features like cruise control. Soon after, Mercedes started updating its SL roadster using OTA software with non-critical features like mirrored apps.

No need to visit car dealerships for updates

Visiting your local car dealership for a software update isn’t exactly something that most drivers look forward to.

First, there’s the journey to get there, followed by the paperwork, a whole day without having a car and then the carless journey back to the dealership to pick it up.

With OTA, visits to your dealership become non-existent. Critical software updates can be performed remotely, so you don’t have to travel anywhere.

Enhanced vehicle security

In a lot of cases, OTA software updates can enhance your car’s security. It can fix bugs, do recalls and perform updates to your central locking system.

As autonomous driving becomes the norm, security will be a top priority for manufacturers and drivers alike. Even the smallest bug or glitch in a driverless vehicle’s system could have major repercussions if not fixed quickly. The fact that software issues can be detected and fixed immediately will be crucial in our driverless future.

With a connected vehicle, the manufacturer can continually monitor its security status. It can detect vulnerabilities as they arise and deliver appropriate measures to mitigate threats. For example, malicious third-parties may try to adjust commands within a vehicle’s software that would put the car and driver at risk. With OTA, digital signatures can confirm that any new code sent was intended by the manufacturer.

Improved driving efficiency

As well as making a vehicle more secure, OTA updates can also make a car more efficient. From adjusting transmission, to improving fuel efficiency and performance, a more efficient car makes for a better driving experience.

Because OTA software can support two-way information exchanges, manufacturers can continually monitor a vehicle’s performance and roll out relevant prognostics and tuning to promote better driving efficiency over the long-term.

For example, in 2018, Consumer Reports noted that Tesla’s Model 3 braking system wasn’t up to scratch, with an unimpressive stopping distance of 152 feet from 60mph. Days later, Tesla announced that improvements would be rolled out immediately using an over-the-air software update.

Increased vulnerability to hacking

Whereas software over-the-air updates can be used to enhance a vehicle’s security, it can also make it more vulnerable to cyber security threats. The use of third-party software, like cloud-based services and onboard diagnostics software can increase opportunities for hackers.

Risk mitigation needs to be a top priority in OTA updates to ensure their implementation doesn’t cause more harm than good. Robust processes are required to ensure that hardware and other third-party components are onboarded safely. Likewise, penetration testing needs to be conducted with every new update to evaluate its security.

Perhaps the most infamous example of a vehicle hacking was in 2015, when researchers exposed vulnerabilities in the security of Jeep’s Cherokee. They demonstrated how the car could be hacked by turning the windshield wipers on and suddenly braking the car from a distance of 10 miles away.

Concerns over software reliability

Given the amount of code involved in connected cars, it’s no surprise that software updates can become complicated. Implementing OTA updates isn’t as simple as writing code and sending it out to vehicles. Compliance has to be met and engineering standards need to be adhered to so that any updates don’t negatively impact other components in the car.

Even updates that aren’t considered system critical can go wrong and impact everything from a car’s steering, to its tires and braking system. For example, in 2018, it was discovered that the infotainment systems of some Fiat Chryslers went into a continuous reboot following an OTA update. And back in 2016, an OTA update in Lexus cars led to the disabling of their entertainment systems and some emergency assistance services.

Some closing thoughts…

As cars become ever more connected, software over-the-air updates will become more common. As vehicles come to use more complex hardware and software, the need for immediate fixes and updates will only increase.

While OTA updates aren’t without their flaws, as industry standards become more consistent, so will the reliability of over-the-air updates. Essentially, they will make drivers’ lives easier by providing convenience, enhancing functionality and eventually, guaranteeing security.