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

Elon Musk tweeted that the all-electric vehicles will receive wireless upgrades to their powertrain.

Using a capability that is unique in the auto industry, Elon Musk last week tweeted that over-the-air (OTA) software upgrades would soon come to its P85D Model S sedans as the cars sat in garages and driveways around the world.

While Tesla Motor's powertrain upgrade via OTA software may be a first, it's a feature that most automakers are hoping to adopt because it will improve customer satisfaction and slash costs.

In fact, consumers soon may consider it outrageous that they must either download to a thumb drive or travel to a dealership to have their vehicle's software updated. Imagine having to go to a retailer to upgrade an application on your smartphone or tablet.

Like a smartphone, the car is quickly becoming a consumer electronic mobile device - the largest one. And OTA upgrades will be standard.

"As a manufacturer, you'll have to have it to even be considered by the consumer," said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader for market research firm Gartner. "We'll see a lot more OTA software in the next 12 to 18 months."

Research firm IHS expects most, if not all automakers, to offer fully fledged OTA-enabled platforms that encompass every vehicle system - from infotainment, safety, comfort, and powertrain -- in three to five years.

For example, one of the largest vehicle infotainment system makers, Harman, recently announced the acquisition of Red Bend, a provider of software management technology for connected devices and OTA software and firmware upgrades.

OTA software updates also involve vehicle safety. Vehicle software recalls are common, and car owners often don't bother to bring their vehicles to a dealer to get the updates, leaving them vulnerable to the defect.

Tesla's OTA upgrade bumped up the all-electric Model S's 0-60mph speed by about one-tenth (0.1) of a second. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted about the upgrade, saying it was an update to the inverter algorithm. An inverter changes direct current electricity to alternating current.

"We have a software and firmware team that packages updates. The packages are matched to a VIN [vehicle identification number] to ensure the car has the required hardware to receive all relevant updates," a Tesla spokesperson said in an email reply to Computerworld. When a software update is sent OTA, the Tesla driver simply receives a message on the touch screen of the Model S that the update is available.

"The experience is similar to downloading the latest software upgrade for a smartphone," the Tesla spokesperson said.

Tesla is better positioned than most automakers to offer OTA software upgrades, particularly ones that affect the powertrain and not just the infotainment or navigation system. That's because all of the Model S's electronic control units (ECUs) can be centrally accessed as part of the vehicle's telematics system. On most vehicles, there are hard firewalls between ECUs that serve navigation systems, entertainment units and powertrain s.

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.

The MOST 150 specification offers up to 1.2Gbps throughput, opening up bandwidth for the increasing number of electronics in today's and tomorrow's vehicles.

But manufacturers are looking closely at the venerable Ethernet networking standard as a more secure protocol that also offers time-tested security.

For example, Ford uses the CAN specification, but it's considering Ethernet as a "supplemental data transport system," according to Nick Colella, Ford's Infotainment manager.

Moving Ethernet along as a vehicle bus protocol is a well-oiled supply chain, including some of the top microchip makers. Last year, for example, Freescale announced its first automotive-grade Ethernet chipset and software, paving the way for automakers to install 100Mbps networks in vehicles.

The new processors from Freescale will connect in-car electronics and Wi-Fi routers over standard two-wire twisted pair cable, not CAT 5, making it robust enough to serve as a networking topology for vehicles.

According to DragTimes, an online racing magazine whose writers have tested the Tesla Model S on the track, the car uses an internal 100Mbps, full duplex Ethernet network.

By 2020, many cars will have 50 to 60 Ethernet ports, and even entry-level vehicles will have at least 10, according to a study by research firm Frost & Sullivan. (Premium vehicles will likely have more than 100 Ethernet nodes by then.)

Tesla has an advantage with an in-factory developed platform created to be more open to OTA upgrades and less open to security issues. But that may change in the future, according to Boyadjis.

It's one thing to internally develop and build 30,000 Model S cars, but when you're building 300,000 or 3 million, that's another story, and it also involves more third-party suppliers.

"Going forward, Tesla said they are going to partner out for a lot of those things, which will make elements of their technology more complicated," Boyadjis said.

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