Cloud-to-Car Software Arriving on 2020 Models

Lyndon Conrad Bell
Motor Matters

Tesla owners enjoy a specific benefit owners of any of other cars have gone without. When Tesla’s engineering team improves a computer-controlled system, the update is released into the cloud and the cars download them automatically.

Over the Air (OTA) software updates have given Tesla the ability to upgrade comfort and convenience features, correct software bugs, and advance the performance potential of its products — on the fly. For the 2020 model year, Ford and General Motors will also have this technology.

In other words, in much the same manner as performing an operating system update to your smartphone endows it with new capabilities, your car will soon be treated the same way. The Chevrolet Bolt EV can already do this, but the functionality has yet to be switched on.

And actually, some current models have been getting non-critical OTA software updates for a few years now. Information is downloaded automatically whenever updates are made available for navigation systems or new satellite radio channels are added.

According to GM spokesperson Vijay Iyer, the company’s OTA updates will be conducted through OnStar. The system already has the capability of locking and unlocking cars, starting them remotely, and shutting them down if they’ve been stolen or are involved in the commission of a crime. However, General Motors is going take it even further.

Iyer says, “We are looking at additional opportunities that would allow OnStar to upgrade vehicles post-purchase to create more value to our existing customers.” With OTA updates, GM will rapidly deploy software revisions and introduce new features to connected vehicles. This holds the potential to eliminate certain types of recalls and their associated costs, in addition to enabling new features and improving capabilities.

This could be a real boon for product recalls. With OTA updates, carmakers no longer have to rely upon customers to bring cars in for certain fixes to be performed. They can be accomplished remotely — without involving the owner at all.

Meanwhile, Ford has partnered with the Alameda, Calif.-based technology firm Wind River to deliver advanced connected car capabilities.

“Software is the key to keeping pace with advancing automotive complexities,” says Marques McCammon, vice president of Automotive at Wind River. “The ability to continuously and remotely update it to resolve issues and introduce new features is more critical than ever.”

On the other hand, as idealistic as all of that sounds, Consumer Reports cautions motorists against ignoring the downside of this approach.

“Remote updates can be great if they go well, but if they introduce safety defects or compromise security, they could be a nightmare,” says David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “When software crashes on your phone or computer because of an update, it’s annoying. But it could be deadly when it happens in a two-ton computer on wheels at 70 mph.”

Hackers are another concern. After all, if an automaker can communicate with a car, a determined computer expert could force their way in too. This was demonstrated rather vividly back in 2015, when WIRED magazine’s Andy Greenberg was “taken for a ride” by a couple of computer security experts on a Missouri Interstate in a Jeep Cherokee.

They started out by showing him they could take control of the climate control and audio systems. Then, “As I mentally congratulated myself on my courage under pressure, they cut the transmission,” Greenberg wrote. “Even though I frantically pressed the accelerator pedal, the Jeep slowed to a crawl.”

The good news is information regarding the vulnerabilities they exploited was passed along to automakers who have since instituted additional preventative measures. Further, many of the security protocols we have in place for protecting financial transactions over the Internet can be called into play for automotive OTA updates as well.

Ultimately though, time will tell just how secure these systems really are. And yes, there have been instances of hacked Teslas — albeit under controlled circumstances. Currently, a competition for ethical hackers has $900,000 on offer to anyone who can crack a Model 3. Successes will be held secret and the information passed along to Tesla to make the cars more secure. Once fixes are in place, the information will be made public.

Meanwhile, OTA software updates are poised to become more pervasive. Like so many aspects of contemporary life, there are positives and there are negatives. For now, it would appear the positives outweigh the negatives as past experiences are informing the deployment of the technology.

In much the same manner as performing an operating system update to smartphones, OTA will be treated the same way. The Chevrolet Bolt EV can already do this, but the functionality has yet to be switched on.