As cars become increasingly connected, it’s possible that we could we see them update themselves for better performance, new features and improved reliability.
Tesla Charges Ahead
Tesla is the indisputable leader in over-the-air vehicle updates. This is because every other month or so, Tesla drops a tasty new piece of software on its customers that improves the Model S. On March 19, the company announced a software update that includes a new “Trip Planner” feature that advises drivers when they’re at risk of traveling beyond the range of reliable charging locations. It’s a feature that helps alleviate range anxiety that plague electric vehicles like the Model S. But Tesla didn’t stop there.
The same update also includes new safety features. For example, the car now has automatic emergency braking to reduce impact during an unavoidable accident, a blind-spot warning system and a side collision warning system. Finally, the car even gets a new “valet mode” that can limit output from its electric powertrain, lock the glove box and cargo compartments and hide your personal information.
“Most cars don’t improve over time,” Tesla said in its press release announcing the update. “With Tesla’s regular over-the-air software updates, Model S actually improves while you sleep. When you wake up, added functionality, enhanced performance, and improved user experience make you feel like you are driving a new car.”
By offering constant updates to its vehicles Tesla is pulling a page from the playbook of technology giants like Apple and Google. Android and iOS devices get updates that add new features and tweak the interface in some way.
Of course it helps that the Tesla Model S has a built-in Internet connection that allows it to receive data. That used to be unusual, but mobile data connectivity is starting to show up in affordable vehicles as well.
Trickling Into More Cars
Ford recently announced that its vehicles will be better connected in order to provide new features like scheduled remote start, a vehicle finder and a vehicle status indicator for information like fuel level and tire pressures. This will also lead to updates for their new Sync 3 infotainment system.
“We could include new features (such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto), graphical interface improvements, new versions of AppLink, and compatibility and performance updates,” Ford technology communications manager Alan Hall said. While the plan is currently limited to Ford’s infotainment system, there are plans to adopt a Tesla-like strategy for the future. “We are developing the capability to deliver over-the-air software updates for other vehicle systems in the future,” said Hall.
Other automakers are exploring this future of over-the-air updates too, but it is coming slowly and piece-by-piece. Other manufacturers including Hyundai, BMW, Audi and General Motors offer in-car Internet connections to support various features. In many cases the Internet connection can be used to reach a concierge service in order to help you find a location while you’re on the road or get help if you’re in an emergency.
While these features are useful, it’s not the same as Tesla’s ability incorporate new features into existing cars over the air, but that’s on the way.
“GM has worked with OnStar for years to deliver over-the-air software updates to improve the performance of its OnStar hardware and related services,” OnStar spokesman Stuart Fowle said. “GM is currently evaluating over-the-air software capabilities to other vehicle systems like infotainment.” Like Ford’s statement, over-the-air updates to specific components will occur soon, with items like the infotainment system being the main priority.
Other automakers are following these footsteps too. “We are currently exploring ways to do over the air updates,” Hyundai connected car spokesman Miles Johnson said.
Tesla is currently the only automaker sending over-the-air updates to vehicles that improve the car with new features and performance, but other companies are slowly trying to catch up. Expect to see over-the-air updates hitting infotainment systems first, with other components to follow afterwards.