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Remote software updates transforming auto industry, experts say

TORONTO — Picture a broken-down car at the side of the road. Most likely, it's an image of a frustrated driver looking under the hood or using their phone to call for help. But that may be changing.
In December, Tesla recalled over two million cars for a faulty self-driving feature which the U.S. transport agency said has caused fatal collisions. The auto manufacturer moved to then deploy a bundle of over-the-air software updates to improve the features. The Tesla Gigafactory Berlin-Brandenburg plant is seen in Grunheide, Germany, Friday Jan. 12, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-dpa, Patrick Pleul

TORONTO — Picture a broken-down car at the side of the road. Most likely, it's an image of a frustrated driver looking under the hood or using their phone to call for help.

But that may be changing. Advanced software in connected cars is progressing faster, making it possible to fix some problems withouta trip to the garage or dealership.

These so-called over-the-air fixes can remotely update entertainment and navigation systems and, in some cases, critical safety features. 

Experts say this is increasingly where the automotive industry is headed. 

In December, Tesla recalled more than two million cars because of a faulty self-driving feature which the U.S. transport agency said has caused fatal collisions. The auto manufacturer was able to deploy a bundle of over-the-air software updates to fix the issue. 

"Software isn't really an option anymore for automakers; it's mandatory," said Dylan Khoo, an automotive industry analyst with ABI Research, based in London, England.

"You have to have software in the vehicle and software has bugs inherent to it," he said. "With that software will come the requirement to update it and if you can't do that remotely, it's heavily limiting."

Remote upgrades work similarly to changesfor connected devices such as mobile phones or laptops in that they can be programmed for certain times, typically overnight, and be delivered without the user having to actively participate, said Khoo.

Mostly, drivers receive notifications on a mobile app or their car's console, alerting them to an available update, which they confirm and schedule, he said. 

Tesla was the first automaker to introduce over-the-air updates more than a decade ago. Such updates have significantly improved consumer experience, said Robert Falzon, head of engineering at cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies, Ltd. 

"You used to have to go (to a dealership) any time there was some sort of software change to the vehicle ... leave it there for a couple of hours," he said. "It was quite a bit of effort."

Vehicle manufacturers create an encrypted piece of software designated for the car's model and send the bundled update through a server, which is then downloaded to the carover Wi-Fi or cellular data. 

Minor updates can download in as little as five minutes, Falzon said, and when the update is for safety reasons, it's free of charge.

Khoo said this is in contrast to how software updates were delivered previously — by downloading them onto a USB stickor taking the car to a dealership and paying them to perform the upgrade.

"The real benefit of (over-the-air) is that the car company can control the software updates and do them more frequently," Khoo said, which is especially true when urgent software changes are pushed against security threats.

But it is not yet a widespread practice, partly because vehicles are built with parts from different suppliers. In Canada, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Lucid, Mercedes-Benz, Polestar, Tesla, VinFast, and Volvo have issued remote updates to address recalls, Khoo said.

Even auto manufacturers that do provide some level of remote updates don't yet match Tesla's ability on critical safety remote fixes. Updates fixing critical features are less common generally, Khoo said. Most carmakers are also hesitant to get fully involved in certain kinds of over-the-air updates in case something goes wrong, he added. 

There are a few cases where attempted updates have disabled functionality for vehicles.

Last year, a Ford Mach-E owner shared a photo online of his car's console after an upgrade failure. The prompt read, "Unfortunately, a recent software update was not successful. Your vehicle cannot be driven."

Ford said it was a rare circumstance and the owner received help with the situation.

"As the customer noted in a follow-up social media post, the Ford team responded immediately and resolved the issue," Megan Joakim, communications manager at Ford Canada, said in an email. 

Electric vehicles in general have a better capacity for remote updates compared with gas cars. Over-the-air leaders are mostly companies with a focus on EVs such as Tesla, BMW, and other luxury European brands.

Falzon recalled his EV receiving an over-the-air update that allowed him to choose between a single-button cruise option or a two-click option.

"Small tweaks like that are based on feedback ... and that's all free of charge," he said.

Falzon said the mechanical components are generally less necessary in EVs and are easily fixed remotely. However, he had to bring in his EV for a software update one time after a U.S. agency mandate asked to improve the car's response to charging. 

In 2023, 147 software-related recalls were issued in the U.S., only 18 of which had an over-the-air update option, Khoo said.

Over the past five years, more than 20 million vehicles were recalled for a software-related issue in the U.S. and couldn't be fixed via remote updates, Khoo added. 

Even with remote update capability, cars still require trips to a mechanic for oil changes and other physical repairs.

"Nobody's going to be fixing brakes or transmission problems over the air," said Huw Williams, spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association. Dealerships and mechanics will continue to play a role in aftersales markets for vehicles, he added.

Manufacturers have also been slow to adopt a deeper level of software over-the-air updates -- likely because they have not figured out a consistent revenue model for it, Khoo said.

"That is really because the cost of maintenance usually exceeds the cost of production," Khoo said. "That's why a lot of (manufacturers) aren't pushing into it more aggressively because they're not entirely happy with taking on the cost of things they can't extract revenue from." 

He said a car is going to be on the road for 15 years and the manufacturer's commitment to its customers would determine levels of software updates when a vehicle runs out of warranty.

"One of the big changes needed is working out where the car ends physically and where the software begins," Khoo said, because they are becoming more integrated. 

"It's tough to work out exactly what customers will be happy with and accepting of (when) having a monthly subscription fee for," he said. The subscription-based over-the-air updates are limitedto a small number of brands such as Tesla, unlocking self-driving features for extra dollars.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2024.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press