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Remote software updates transforming auto industry, experts say



Picture a broken-down car at the side of the road. Perhaps you envision a frustrated driver inspecting the engine or making a distress call on their phone. However, the landscape of such scenarios is shifting. Advanced software in connected cars is evolving rapidly, offering the potential to address issues without a visit to the traditional garage.


These innovative solutions, known as over-the-air fixes, enable remote updates for entertainment, navigation systems, and even critical safety features in some instances. Industry experts predict a growing reliance on this technology within the automotive sector.


A notable example occurred in December when Tesla recalled over two million cars due to a flawed self-driving feature linked to fatal collisions, according to the U.S. transport agency. In response, Tesla deployed a set of over-the-air software updates, swiftly resolving the issue.


Dylan Khoo, an automotive industry analyst with ABI Research, emphasized the evolving necessity of software in vehicles. He stated, "Software isn't really an option anymore for automakers; it's mandatory." Khoo highlighted that as software becomes integral to vehicles, the ability to update it remotely is crucial, eliminating limitations.


Remote upgrades function similarly to updates for devices like mobile phones or laptops, with the advantage of being programmed for specific times, often overnight. Drivers typically receive notifications through a mobile app or their car's console, allowing them to confirm and schedule the update at their convenience.


Tesla pioneered over-the-air updates over a decade ago, significantly enhancing the consumer experience. Robert Falzon, head of engineering at cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies, Ltd., noted the previous inconvenience of visiting a dealership for software changes, highlighting the substantial effort involved.


Manufacturers develop encrypted software tailored to a car's model, transmitting bundled updates through servers, downloaded to the vehicle via Wi-Fi or cellular data. Minor updates can be swift, taking as little as five minutes, and critical safety updates are often provided free of charge.


Despite the potential benefits, widespread adoption is hindered by diverse vehicle components from various suppliers. In Canada, several automakers, including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Lucid, Mercedes-Benz, Polestar, Tesla, VinFast, and Volvo, have issued remote updates to address recalls.


However, Khoo pointed out that not all automakers match Tesla's capability for critical safety remote fixes. Concerns about potential issues and a few instances of update failures leading to disabled functionality have made car manufacturers cautious.


While electric vehicles generally have a better capacity for remote updates compared to traditional gas cars, there's still room for improvement. Over-the-air leaders, including Tesla and BMW, continue to refine their capabilities.


The integration of software in vehicles raises challenges about customer expectations, especially regarding subscription-based models. Khoo emphasized the need to define the boundary between physical and software aspects of a car. As vehicles become more integrated, determining acceptable customer practices for monthly subscription fees remains a complex puzzle for manufacturers.


In conclusion, the transformation of the auto industry through remote software updates is gaining momentum, offering convenience and efficiency. However, challenges persist, from addressing safety concerns to defining revenue models for sustained development in this evolving landscape.


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