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Emerging Auto Tech: What Are OTA Updates?

Emerging Auto Tech: What Are OTA Updates?

How often does your cell phone or computer notify you that it needs an update? Even your smart TV likely alerts you to an impending update that needs installed. With the high-tech nature of today’s vehicles, it should come as no shock certain onboard systems can benefit from occasional updates. 

An increasing number of vehicles are sold with the ability to communicate with an automobile manufacturer via cellular data. Onboard computers can receive updates to the newest software without the owner having to visit a dealership service center. Let’s take a look at OTA updates, what they do, why they are beneficial and what are the possible drawbacks of this emerging technology.

What Is an OTA Update?dash infotainment unit

OTA stands for “Over The Air.” For an OTA update, the manufacturer sends a software update to the vehicle via a wireless network, usually the cellular phone network, but some can work over Wi-Fi. Over-the-air updates allow automakers to continually improve their products, even after they roll off the dealer lot. Manufacturers decide which systems are available for OTA updates, while in some cases almost the entire vehicle’s onboard computers are updated. 

In the past, manufacturers relied on recalls or technical service bulletins (TSB) to signal when onboard software needed an update. Performing an update meant scheduling an appointment with the dealership for service. The service then required connecting specialized diagnostic equipment to the vehicle (and possibly disassembling part of the vehicle to access a computer module). All this takes time and effort. 

In 2012, Tesla was the first manufacturer to implement an automotive OTA update with its Model S firmware update. Since then, the practice is more and more common as car connectivity grows exponentially. Most automotive manufacturers now include some sort of vehicle connectivity as either a complimentary or subscription service, so the mobile networking equipment is already in place. An OTA update saves time and money for the manufacturers, the vehicle owner and even the dealership service center.

What Does an OTA Update Do?

An OTA firmware update can do a lot of things. Most importantly, it can fix any software bugs identified since the vehicle was built. Manufacturers can optimize and improve software for better stability and response time. They may also develop security updates that need applied in the constant battle against hackers and car thieves. In some cases, new features might get added to an infotainment system or other connected system. The update may even improve performance or driving efficiency as automakers analyze data from connected services. In some cases, the manufacturer can even change the layout of the infotainment system in response to customer input.

An OTA update can even make changes dictated by a recall. Recently, Tesla announced a recall of more than 2,000,000 vehicles. Thanks to the built-in, over-the-air update system already in place, the recall was done without ever having to visit a dealership. As long as an issue is software related, this Tesla OTA update recall is handled quickly and conveniently. There’s lots of reasons why an OTA software update can benefit a vehicle owner.

How Do You Perform an OTA Update?

The answer is that you, the owner, don’t. It is up to the manufacturer to create and implement an OTA update. If an OTA update needs done, a signal is sent to the vehicle from the manufacturer’s telematics network. Onboard the vehicle, the signal is verified as trusted, at which time the OTA update is downloaded. Once the download is complete, the file(s) are verified again and installed. The vehicle owner still has a bit of control over what updates are installed though as you can deny or defer some of them.

What Can Go Wrong With an OTA Update?

Automakers go to great lengths to make sure any updates pushed to their vehicles pass quality checks. But, just like any software update, sometimes there are hiccups. Recently, an update for Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks left owners with a dead battery. Some owners are reluctant to allow an OTA update if given the choice, which can slow down broader adoption of critical vehicle updates. However, these issues are rare. Most OTA updates happen with no problems at all, but a smooth update rarely gets attention. 

While not a widely known problem yet, hackers could leverage the fact that vehicles have a data access point in the future. Just like your home computer, hackers are always probing for vulnerabilities that they can exploit for nefarious reasons. The biggest risk is if the battery is disconnected while an update is getting applied, just like how your computer tells you to not turn off the power while it performs an update. Most people don’t go around randomly disconnecting their battery, so the risk is low. 

In some cases, there is an issue with the cellular network on which an OTA update depends. If the vehicle is in an area where cell phone coverage is poor, the likelihood of it receiving an update is low. This means that the owner would need to drive to an area with better cellular reception so that the vehicle can download the update.

The Future Is Connected

OTA updates are here to stay, especially because automakers are working to monetize the technology. Tesla already offers an update that makes your Model Y accelerate faster. Cadillac is offering a similar performance boost for its Lyriq EV that adds 74-lb./ft. of torque, which should equate to faster acceleration times. It isn’t hard to imagine a world where infotainment upgrades or even heated seats are now sold a-la-carte from a manufacturers’ phone app and “installed” via an OTA update. Kia is already planning to allow owners to buy extras via their Kia Connect store that allow for customizing vehicle experience to the driver.

Today, it seems like automotive technology is moving at warp speed. There is no doubt that cars, trucks and SUVs are moving towards a more connected future. That’s why NAPA has invested in that future by supporting programs to train the next generation of automotive technicians. Your local NAPA Auto Care is staffed with ASE-certified technicians who understand modern vehicle systems. They can answer any questions you might have about automotive over-the-air updates and if your vehicle has OTA update capability.

Photo courtesy of pxhere.

Brian Medford View All

With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible, BMW E46 sedan, and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.

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