Its Time for the Industry to Adopt Over the Air Updates

Ever since Tesla introduced the idea of over the air (OTA) software updates with its Model S sedan, the rest of the industry has been scrambling to catch up. Ford and GM will reportedly be ready with the 2020 model year, and the last 6 weeks or so have truly provided the evidence that it is sorely needed, now.

In that time, 10 recalls have been issued impacting 2.8 million vehicles, each of which was software related and all potentially safety issues.

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The industry has plunged headlong into computer control of just about everything, without considering improving the methods for upgrades, recalls or clever problem solving. For instance, when Tesla’s sedans were striking debris in roadways and damaging battery packs, part of the fix was an over the air software change that literally raised the vehicles height.

The Recalls

The 10 current recalls include a software issue that causes the low fuel warning light to not come on when fuel is actually low, which could lead to a driver running out of fuel.

Hybrid recallThe second and eighth issues cover hybrids. The first can actually result in a fire because of unburned fuel, while the second can lead to a stall. And there’s never a good time for a stall.

The third is a transmission calibration issue that can lead to stalling.

The fourth involves air bags, which is particularly galling given the attention paid to these devices over the last few years.

The fifth is a stuck purge valve that starts with the programming of the Powertrain Control Module.

Numbers 6, 7 and 9 revolve around the Electronic Control Unit, one of which hits the air bags again, while the last one includes another fire risk.

And finally number 10 leaves a back up camera inoperable.

The central issue across the board is software, and as cars become more and more computerized, you can bet that these issues will increase as well. But at legacy manufacturers, electronic systems have been added piece by piece with essentially no central core in control and no consideration given to over the air connectivity. Thus pretty much every recall requires the vehicle to be taken to a dealer for updates.

And while we see this as a safety and convenience issue for drivers, according to IHS Automotive manufacturers stand to save over $30 billion in recall costs by 2022 if over the air updates can be implemented.

PC updateThe Risks

Hacking risks exist in vehicles already and will be exacerbated by over the air connections. These issues simply need solutions and cannot be an excuse to avoid the bigger fix. But we would caution manufacturers not to follow the examples set by our computers and cell phones.

We have all experienced odd behavior from our devices only to discover that an update had been downloading while the devices were in use. This simply cannot happen in our cars. The Tesla screenannouncement shown in the picture of a Tesla screen would be more than sufficient to cover an update.

And we are assuming that new software was not actually downloaded before the message was shown. And if this is not the case, it damn well should be. Gumming up the works with a download while a car is in use is down right dangerous.

Make no mistake, software and software updates are a dicey game to play with moving vehicles. Aside from the recalls noted, a September software update by Tesla disabled their Auto Pilot Tesla OTA failsystem rather than improving it. Other manufacturers, where they have the capability to update their infotainment centers, have experienced similar problems.  Mistakes of this type could impact a far more critical system in any car at any time.

Now we’ve clearly oversimplified the issue. It’s not easy to turn around the methods used by existing manufacturers or to control the cost of those changes and the over the air data delivery. Also as we’ve seen too often in the industry, there are no standards for something that a few years ago simply wasn’t even on anyone’s mind outside of Tesla.

But leaving a driver in a car that has a fire risk or other safety issue that was likely caused by, and can be fixed by software changes is not acceptable in a computerized and wirelessly connected world.

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