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Over-the-air software coming soon to your next car

Lucas Mearian | Feb. 9, 2015
OTA software upgrades will not only affect your entertainment system but power train and vehicle safety systems.

More and more automakers are offering embedded Wi-Fi in their cars, which will enable OTA software updates regardless of a vehicle's location.

Mark Boyadjis, a manager of Infotainment & HMI systems research at IHS, said OTA vehicle upgrades will not only save consumers the frustration of a download or dealer visit, it will dramatically cut costs across the industry.

That's because whether a vehicle is under warranty or not, someone ultimately has to pay for a software upgrade, and that cost gets passed along to the consumer.

"Dealers have mixed feelings about this. Of course it provides a better satisfaction rating, but it lowers their revenue as a dealer network over time," Boyadjis said, referring to the elimination of labor charges for upgrades.

State of the industry
Many major automakers, according to Boyadjis, are enabling some of their vehicles to receive OTA software updates, but those are exclusive to either navigation mapping systems or entertainment units.

For example, BMW has announced an LTE-telematics architecture for this year that will enable navigation system map updates. Hyundai is doing the same for vehicles in Korea.

Ford recently confirmed that it's switching from a Windows-based Sync platform to Blackberry's QNX Car platform, which will allow its Sync 3 infotainment system to receive OTA updates. Honda plans to allow OTA upgrades via a home Wi-Fi network.

Toyota and its Lexus subsidiary have enabled OTA upgrades for the EnTune infotainment system via a Bluetooth paired or physically connected smartphone or tablet. Nissan and Infinity have an OTA upgrade platform in place, but the automaker has not enabled updates. When the companies do, it will be for infotaiment, not powertrain or other systems related to vehicle operation, according to Boyadjis.

Daimler-Chrysler also has enabled OTA updates, but they also ARE limited to the telematics control unit, Boyadjis said.

New architectures needed to enable OTA software
One of the impediments to OTA software updates has been the vehicle's internal bus, which in many vehicles is a CAN (controller area network), a slow (500Kbps to 1Mbps) and somewhat unsophisticated standard with hard firewalls that creates ECU islands; you can wirelessly talk to the infotainment system ECU, but not the ECUs controlling airbags, antilock braking, cruise control and electric power steering.

Even the most widely adopted high-speed transport specification in newer cars -- Media Oriented Systems Transport (MOST) -- contain a number of disparate protocols, depending on which automaker has deployed it.

Safety is the main reason for hard firewalls between vehicle ECUs. If ECUs are centrally connected to receive OTA upgrades, there's also a security vulnerability.

It's one thing for a hacker to disable a navigation system or radio, but it's another thing to be able to access a vehicle's powertrain or braking system.


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