The yearly tune-up to keep a vehicle operating at its peak may one day be a thing of the past.

Instead, it will be done without even leaving the driveway.

Automakers and truck manufacturers are racing to develop software update technology that wirelessly tunes the network of computers that control a vehicle’s operations.

Just as an iPhone can install the latest operating system when it becomes available, passenger cars to Class 8 semi-trailer trucks will soon have the ability to download over-the-air, or OTA, enhancements without the need of a mechanic.

By 2023 there will be more than 140 million passenger vehicles globally equipped with cloud-enabled technology that can manage some types of OTA updates, according to IHS Markit, an industry research firm. Nearly 20 million will have the ability to download updates directly into their core electronic control unit, which runs every major component, including the engine.

In the trucking industry, the ability to download fixes and upgrades could save huge sums of money.

In 2016, Navistar International Corp. began offering OTA updates without charge for owners of certain International brand trucks. Customers with older vehicles – but still built since 2010 — can also add the technology for a fee.

“We think of a truck and its modules that we reprogram as just apps on an iPhone,” said Terry Kline, chief intelligence officer at Navistar. “You upgrade your apps tonight, and tomorrow you’ve got the new version.”

Instead of parading its fleet to the nearest dealer, which could be long distances away or through remote terrain, a shipping company could simply download the newest software from the comfort of its parking lot. A typical OTA update can improve maps, perform recall work or even help the engine run more efficiently, Kline said.

“Imagine the savings for someone not having to drive 300 miles to get new software for their engines,” Kline said. “We’re trying to maximize the uptime of the vehicle and minimize the impact to the driver.”

Other commercial vehicle companies are embracing the technology.

  • Volvo Trucks announced in May that certain models in its Mack brand refuse lineup would be available with OTA technology this year. It plans to add the function to other models soon.
  • In January, automotive supplier Delphi Inc. acquired software startup Movimento, which has since installed OTA technology in 19,000 commercial vehicles.
  • Parts supplier Harman International Industries Inc. has signed agreements to produce OTA technology for 17 automotive companies around the world, including three commercial vehicle manufacturers, said Oren Betzaleli, a vice president at Harman.
movimento OTA download

Download progress is tracked during an over-the-air update of Movimento technology. (Photo: Movimento)

Market-Ready

Light vehicle makers need to pick up the pace of OTA technology development, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley Research.

“They continue to sell vehicles that are incapable of learning and improving and are highly vulnerable to obsolescence,” Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, wrote.

One reason that automakers may be reluctant to embrace OTA technology is concern over cybersecurity, said Michael Ramsey, an analyst for Gartner Inc.

The growing amount of software in modern vehicles increases vulnerability to security breaches. Automated and autonomous vehicles are at risk of being taken over by terrorists, said an assistant U.S. attorney general in July.

But automakers are working on future vehicles built to house OTA technology securely from the ground up, Ramsey said.

“To really do it well you have to have your architecture designed so you can execute an OTA,” he said. “Car companies are just getting around to doing it.”

For now, upstart electric car manufacturer Tesla Inc. represents the gold standard for OTA software updates.

Since its first OTA update in 2012, the electric vehicle manufacturer has issued more than a dozen wireless upgrades that include raising the suspension to reduce risk to the undercarriage, installing remote start, introducing automatic emergency braking and launching its controversial Autopilot feature. It is expected to follow this pattern when it unveils plans to build an electric semi-truck in September.

“They have shown the gamut of what’s possible,” said Colin Bird, senior analyst for IHS Markit.

Tesla has integrated OTA technology quickly because of one unique advantage: its direct sales model.

Traditional automakers are required to have authorized dealerships deal with recalls and technical service bulletins, Bird said. Automakers pay dealers an estimated $70 to $100 for each vehicle they work on. The tab can add up in a recall that affects hundreds of thousands or even millions of vehicles. OTA updates threaten that revenue stream, Bird said.

Tesla doesn’t face that issue because it doesn’t have a dealer network that makes money from recalls and updates.

In 2015, over-the-air updates could have saved automakers an estimated $303 million in the United States alone, Ramsey said.

Increasingly, recalls are issued for problems that could be fixed remotely. More than 90 percent of recalls now are software-related, Bird said.

“It’s getting really crazy,” he said. “The reason for that is more than half the value of the car is in software.”

OTAs could save the global automotive industry an estimated $40 billion by the year 2023, according to a July report by IHS Markit.

“There’s some finagling about how you would do the OTA updates, but it’s not stopping the technology,” Bird said.

In a traditional recall, only about 70 percent of vehicles are fixed, he said, leaving nearly a third of the affected vehicles still vulnerable to the defect. However, in vehicles that are equipped so that an OTA update can fix the problem, up to 95 percent receive the repairs, Bird said.

Automakers see the advantage:

  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles used an over-the-air update to install new software on vehicles with its UConnect 8.4 infotainment system this year.
  • Ford Motor Co. sent an automatic update to owners with its SYNC3 infotainment software that added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability in May.
  • General Motors will produce vehicles capable of OTA updates by 2020, Mary Barra, chief executive, said in July. The company’s Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle can accept OTA updates, but the automaker hasn’t issued any for that model yet.

Automakers have primarily issued OTA updates that affect a vehicle’s display screen and operating software. But more are becoming interested in “firmware” – software in the vehicle that could be updated to improve mechanical components such as the engine and suspension, Betzaleli said.

“At least half of our clients are talking about managing the entire vehicle,” he said. “I think the big wave will come from the middle of 2018, and we will start seeing many millions of vehicles going live over the air.”

In 2017, about 10 percent of new vehicles with navigation systems are capable of OTA updates, Bird said. By 2023 he expects more than 75 percent to have OTA capability.

Once vehicles are equipped to receive OTA updates, there are many ways they could be utilized.

Vehicles manufacturers could offer short-term features or capabilities for purchase, similar to downloadable content in a video game, Bird said.

Truckers have already inquired about downloading extra muscle for short trips, or installing software than loosens emission restrictions when they cross state lines and different laws are enforced, Kline said.

“If you’re going to be up in the Rocky Mountains this weekend you could buy 50 more horsepower,” he said. “That’s definitely something we’re talking about.”

Read Next: Tesla’s Road to Electric Trucking May be Easier Than Many Assume

About The Author

Ryan ZumMallen

Ryan ZumMallen is a Trucks.com staff writer who covers the light truck market. A Long Beach, Calif. resident, his automotive writing has appeared in Car and Driver, Road & Track, The Verge, AutoBytel and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter: @Zoomy575M

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