In today’s example of “better late than never,” Volvo is doing its first over-the-air (OTA) update. Tesla has been doing these for almost a decade, and other manufacturers have slowly been getting in on this in recent years.
“The benefits of over-the-air updates are obvious,” said Henrik Green, Chief Technology Officer at Volvo Cars. “Yesterday, you still had to drive to the workshop to get the latest updates to your car; today, you simply click OK and your electric Volvo takes care of the rest. It couldn’t be easier.”
For those unaware, an OTA update is when a vehicle gets software updates directly over the internet from the manufacturer. When a new update is ready, a push notification is sent out to cars, and their owners can tell the car to begin the process when they have some time to let the car be down. Not only do these updates contain safety updates, but they also can improve an electric vehicle’s performance and longevity, and add fun software features in the vehicle’s infotainment system.
The whole problem of the “workshop” Mr. Green mentions is a big part of what has held OTA updates back for most manufacturers. In most places, manufacturers are prohibited from selling cars directly to consumers or providing service. Dealer associations have been sure to keep those laws in place in many U.S. states and in many countries. Because of this, and due to agreements with franchised dealers, they have continued sending customers to get expensive updates from dealers despite the fact that OTA updates have been technologically possible for 20+ years.
Even if the service department didn’t sell you the service of updating, they’d charge well north of $100 for updated memory cards or DVD-ROMs with updated maps and other infotainment information. It was a real mess for people.
Tesla, on the other hand, doesn’t work with dealers to sell or service its cars, so it’s been able to do OTA updates long before the others could get through the politics and legal issues that got in the way. This has kept Tesla out of many states, but it has made the manufacturer a lot stronger than others in the EV race.
With all of those obstacles in the way, Volvo’s recent announcement that it is doing its first OTA update doesn’t seem quite as crazy.
In this case, Volvo’s doing the OTA update on its first 100% battery electric vehicle (BEV), the XC40 Recharge, for its European customers. Features included in this latest software update are a new base software for the car’s main electronic systems, an increase in charging speed, and an improved driving range. There are updates to the Android Automotive operating system that powers the car’s infotainment system, too.
Other updates coming will improve the Bluetooth connectivity, climate timers, the car’s digital owner’s manual, and the 360-degree camera. Plus, the update won’t require anything but the owner clicking “accept” and allowing the update to complete.
“It also means that a new Volvo is no longer at its finest when it leaves the factory,” the company said in the press release. “[It] keeps improving over time as additional OTA updates are launched.”
Volvo isn’t the only company that has started bragging about OTA updates, but it is definitely being outclassed in the entertainment department. In a recent set of entertaining online videos, Ford has been getting in on the action.
In this one, Ford puts the Mustang’s OTA update capabilities up against an impressive trailer-borne mobile pit crew.
The company set up a pit crew to update and upgrade a race car that looks like a gas-powered Mustang (it’s “ackchyually” the same kind of car that runs NASCAR, and has just about nothing in common with what you’d buy with a dealer, FYI), but the pit crew is on a trailer the race car pulls onto, and that makes it possible to update the race car’s capabilities “on the go.” It’s farfetched, but fun.
The Mach-E goes around the turns faster than the race car on a trailer can, and stops for its OTA software update, theoretically getting the same treatment as the race car. The update completes about as fast as the race car on the pit-crew trailer does, and it then makes a J-turn to continue the race against the gas car.
Why OTA Updates Are Important
It’s very good to see other manufacturers getting in on OTA updates. This allows drivers to save a lot of money, as they don’t have to go to an expensive “stealership” to get their updates. It also helps drivers be safer, because critical software updates that people would have to wait for a dealer to have time to install for them can be pushed to the cars’ computer networks immediately. On top of cost and safety benefits, getting new features is just the icing on the cake.
This is also better for automotive manufacturers and even suppliers. It saves them considerable expense in arranging for dealers to do updates that are covered under warranty, and helps avoid costs when safety issues and recalls come up, at least when all that’s needed is a software update. Increased customer satisfaction also results.
Another thing that’s better for everyone is that the speed of vehicle software development is accelerated. Instead of planning updates in such a way as to not inconvenience customers with too-frequent visits to a dealer’s service department, they can push out updates as often as suits them. If a new update needs to happen a week after the last one, there’s no big time and expense hassle for either the customers or the company. This allows the manufacturer to do things much faster.
The only real limit at this point is developer expenses. Just because OTA updates don’t require a visit to the dealer doesn’t mean that they cost nothing to do. The manufacturer needs to hire developers, translators for different markets, and spend time testing the updates on development cars to be sure everything will be stable and good for drivers.
None of that is free, but when the other expenses are a lot less for everyone involved, there’s a lot more room in the budget for a superior software experience.
Featured image by Volvo.