Before cars become self-driving, they'll be software-driven

Cars are going to become rapidly updated and software-driven before self-driving.

Toyota Highway Teammate
Toyota Motor

What with the fervor over autonomous cars, and predictions of the arrival of the machines being anywhere from 20 years to 2 years, as is Tesla CEO Elon Musk's latest projection, many might be forgetting a major development that will become prevalent before any of this self-driving stuff.

That is over-the air (OTA) networked updating of cars. And it will probably end up in the majority of cars within the next 5 to 10 years, pundits say.

Car networks

Consumers are getting used to fast development cycles in their technology, instigated by the smartphone cycle. They’re getting disappointed when other technologies, such as cars, aren’t matching the gee-whizz on their phones.

One solution: a connected car that can update its software.

Amazingly, only 2% to 7% of current U.S. vehicles “have some capacity for OTA updates,” says Connected Car, a publication that was distributed at the Connected Car Expo in November.

That will change rapidly.

“We are not necessarily changing cars for horsepower anymore, but changing to keep up with technology,” Mahbubul Alam, CTO of Movimento Group, told Connected Car.

How easy

Software-oriented cars, with up-to-daily OTA updates, is the way to go, many in the industry think.

One option is to OTA via the usual wireless networks.

Cars will soon have emergency call systems fitted by law in Europe. Those kinds of laws could migrate state-side too. The Euro calling systems will call emergency services in the event of a crash. Add some bandwidth and two-way functionality, and the car becomes software-driven.

Other options might include drive-through dealer-based Wi-Fi updates.

How to do it?

Drivers will either be required to go to a dealership and wait around for the update to be completed over Wi-Fi, or could it be performed on-the-fly, possibly daily.

Interim connectivity for an on-the-fly solution might come from smartphones that are in the car anyway, some say. However, there’s no technician there to ensure the update worked.

One disadvantage to non-in-dealer OTA is possible friction from dealers. Not requiring the user to go back to the dealership would cripple dealers’ up-sell opportunities. Dealers like to get the customers back into the storefront periodically to sell them newer cars.


The network should be two-way, most think. Why two-way and not just simpler cloud-to-car downloads?

The reason is that vehicle-provided data is expected to become part of the IoT.

That data can allow the automaker to “calibrate the performance, fuel economy, and handling,” Brian Greaves says in Connected Car. Greaves is a former OnStar executive and is a now a product developer at AT&T’s Internet of Things Solutions.

Big data

Although the focus right now is on entertainment and just how to keep those head units up to date a la the smartphone software cycle, the future will be much more back-end analysis, owner-experience, and big data-oriented.

“I can continue to adjust and improve the driving experience throughout the vehicle's life-cycle,” Greaves says in the publication.

Further reasons fast OTA will happen: Security updates will become important, and software-oriented recalls, which are common, will be cheaper if done over-the-air.

In-yard OTA?

Interestingly, one school of thought is that the initial, large update could be accomplished as the vehicle is being shipped.

As the car leaves the assembly line with the base software already installed, the ‘firmware upgrade’ as it were, along with regional language, laws, and map updates, could be made in transit during the days or weeks that the vehicle is in the yard or on a ship.


It’s smartphones that are driving this desire for fast-changing cars.

The way it is right now, “by the time you drive off the lot, the software in your car is already two or three years old,” Alam says in Connected Car.

“The industry will be left behind” unless the car becomes a platform for delivering “new software and features,” he says. Many reckon OTA networks are how to achieve that.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.