We’ve written about it… a lot, and we’ll probably write about it a lot more in the coming years: Electric vehicles (EVs) are more popular than ever. As automakers continue to adding EVs to their lineups, they’re also developing new ways to make owners’ lives easier. With an over the air update, you can upgrade your car’s performance using a phone and WiFi connection – no trip to the nearest auto shop necessary.

But just how useful are over the air (OTA) updates? Are we headed towards a future where purchasing subscriptions for technology such as seat warmers and dashcams is the norm? 

What Is an Over the Air Update?

An over the air update is a software or firmware update supplied by an automaker to vehicle owners, who can then download said update onto their vehicle. Think of it like upgrading your computer to the latest version of Windows or downloading a patch for a videogame.

Over the air firmware updates change software that controls or provides instructions for hardware. For example, a lane keep assist system may automatically take over steering if you try and switch lanes unsafely. The lane keep assist system is firmware, because the lane keep assist software controls vehicle hardware (your axles and steering wheel).

In contrast, over the air software updates change systems that don’t interact with or control vehicle hardware, such as a weather display graphic on your vehicle’s console. 

In either case, an over the air update can adjust how your vehicle operates and how you interact with it. 

A car uses a phone to apply an over the air update.

Can an Over the Air Update Make My Car Faster?

It may sound like a joke, but it’s a valid question – and the answer is yes. In 2020, Tesla – the first automaker to consistently offer OTA updates – launched an “acceleration boost” for the Model Y Dual Motor AWD. The firmware update allowed drivers to shave a half-second off the vehicle’s 0-60 mph acceleration. 

Over the air updates can do much more than just change how a horn sounds or the look of a console interface. While software updates often offer quality-of-life improvements, firmware updates can hypothetically impact your vehicle’s efficiency (and, in some cases, safety). This brings us to a major talking point: How automakers are monetizing OTA updates. 

Can Automakers Charge for Over the Air Updates?

Yup. The aforementioned Tesla acceleration boost? Came with a hefty $2,000 price tag to purchase and apply. Tesla’s not alone – BMW made headlines earlier this year when they rolled out an $18 a month subscription for seat warmers via OTA update. Similarly, Mercedes offers UK drivers the option to turn their front-facing camera into a dashcam for £200.

When Car60 interviewed Mark Schafer, head of research at Mercedes cars, about the future of OTA updates, he had this to say: “We’re aiming for an additional €1bn by 2025 to be added from packages and services that we’re selling over the air. Of course, we want to provide features and new experiences to our customers, but also ultimately to do additional business in the future after we’ve sold the vehicle. That’s going to be more and more important.”

Today, subscriptions are the gold standard for companies wanting to monetize their ventures effectively (take a moment to think about all the streaming services and live-service games that debuted over the last few years). Modern vehicles (electric or otherwise) allow automakers to do the same, and they’re fully onboard – Volvo recently stated that all their new cars would support OTA updates. 

A driver uses their car's software to navigate city streets.

Are Over the Air Vehicle Updates Dangerous?

Over the air updates have a lot of hypothetical advantages for drivers. But, as is usually the case, those benefits also come with potential downsides. 

Some auto industry insiders have raised concerns that automakers may be less likely to ensure vehicle firmware and software is fully functional at launch because they can update it later. For example, Volkswagen ID.4 owners complained that the vehicle’s infotainment interface was laggy and buggy at launch. Volkswagen “patched” in fixes shortly after, but many wondered – if OTA updates weren’t an option, would the system have been more refined at launch?

An infotainment system with bad haptic feedback may seem inconsequential, but what about stopping and starting your car? In June 2022, Ford recalled 48,924 Mustang Mach-E’s because of a battery contractor issue that could cause the vehicle to lose power while in motion, or fail to start at all. Fortunately, no crashes or injuries related to these issues occurred. Ford rolled out an over the air update for the related software shortly after, offered via download and at dealerships. However, the potential for firmware updates to impact vehicle safety (positively or negatively) is foremost on many safety experts’ minds

Last but certainly not least, we come to cybersecurity concerns. While OTA updates downloaded over a private or home network should be secure, cars capable of connecting to WiFi could be vulnerable to cybercriminals. The more cars rely on software and firmware, the easier it is for cybercriminals to compromise their safety. 

Despite these potential downsides, it’s evident that OTA updates aren’t going anywhere. If anything, vehicles are only relying on them more and more. 

Interested in how emergent technology continues to change the automotive landscape? You’re not alone! Stick around to keep receiving the latest in car tips, tricks, trends, and technology. 

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