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Can over-the-air updates really make your car worse?

By Andy Enright, 22 Mar 2020 Advice

automotive technology maintenance

Should you think twice about letting your vehicle accept over-the-air updates?

We’ve all done it. Downloaded an update to our phone or laptop that actually made the thing worse than before, that is.

Whether the new functionality was loaded with bloatware we didn’t need, removed features that we valued, surreptitiously inserted additional controls or just wouldn’t run adequately on creaky old devices, it’s always a bit of a gamble that the good will outweigh the bad. Now imagine that happening to your car.

A Californian Tesla owner experienced exactly this issue after buying a used Tesla Model S in November. It turns out that a number of Teslas were fitted with Autopilot and Full Self Driving functionality despite the original owners not having asked for it or having paid the USD$8000 for it. Put that down to a glitch in Elon’s matrix.

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Anyway, Tesla subsequently performed an audit on cars that had unbilled Autopilot functionality and unceremoniously switched it off, that despite subsequent used buyers having paid a premium for their cars in good faith due to Autopilot/FSD functionality being included. Tesla, predictably, offered to sell the functionality back to the owner and it was only after months of public back-and-forth that Tesla finally relented and reinstated the owner’s Autopilot/FSD functionality.

Granted, Tesla has no responsibility to support functionality that hadn’t been paid for, but to remove it from an innocent party who had paid for it doesn’t sit comfortably. And that will be a problem for many car manufacturers henceforth. There are a number of questions that need to be resolved.

If owners are to pay for that sort of expensive functionality that can be switched on and off quite easily over the air, is it reasonable to expect those features to be attached to them and not the car? For example, if somebody were to buy a new Tesla Model 3 and then replace it after three years with another, should they be able carry that Autopilot functionality across to their new car, retaining its value? They may not want that particular investment to depreciate by 43% along with the rest of the vehicle.

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We’re obviously singling out Tesla here, merely due to the facts of the original case, but it could equally apply to any manufacturers that can deliver over-the-air updates. For example, how thrilled would you be if somebody at headquarters decided that your new car should sound an insistent alarm should your vehicle creep over the speed limit by 1km/h? Or that an infotainment system that you’d become comfortable with was, upon getting into your car in the morning, an unintuitive mess? Windows 8 anyone?

Over-the-air updates aren’t anything new, so it’s perhaps surprising that car manufacturers haven’t reached a broad consensus on how to manage them yet. The Mercedes-Benz SL could accept updates to its Mbrace2 infotainment system back in 2012. Volvo’s XC90 followed in 2015 and FCA was able to patch a vulnerability in Jeep’s network security with an over-the-air fix in 2015.

Teething problems remain. In 2018, SiriusXM issued an over-the-air update for its Uconnect infotainment systems in 2017 and 2018 Jeep and Dodge Durango models which resulted in an endless cycle of reboots for the central screen, effectively disabling the infotainment and, with it, the emergency assistance services.

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Likewise, Lexus delivered an update to its Enform infotainment system in 2016 and killed it stone dead. That ‘enhancement’ required a trip to the dealer to rectify.

Jaguar has been a little more circumspect, with its I-Pace electric SUV being designed to continue to run its existing software if an update fails. Owners can decline an update and also need to opt-in to over-the-air updates, and when they do, they retain the ability to schedule updates, which can take up to an hour to download and install, effectively immobilising the vehicle temporarily. It’s not clear if an update can be rolled back to a previous iteration.

But while some manufacturers remain a little wary of changing safety-critical systems, over-the-air updates can have a massive safety benefit. Even after repeated contact attempts, only around 62 percent of new car owners respond to recalls and repair their vehicles. The facility to rectify issues over-the-air would help boost that reach.

Read next: New Apple CarPlay iOS 13 reviewed

On the whole, over-the-air updates are a good thing, but need to be managed very carefully. There’s a very different level of consequence between a laptop giving you the blue screen of death and your vehicle’s critical safety functions going on the fritz due to a bodged line of updated code.

And the other side of the updates is that the data pipe also feeds back to the manufacturer. They can monitor the vehicle’s usage patterns and troubleshoot issues before they even happen, as well as gain a better understanding of how their vehicles are used: critical for future model development. The future is bright. But you might have to wait an hour for it to arrive.


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