By on May 13, 2020

vwConnectivity is one of those special buzzwords used across most industries, whether it be for a virtual meeting app, a washing machine, or a car. All companies seem to think we need more of it. Today we want to know — are you a fan of cars that come equipped with over-the-air update connectivity?

It seems a lot of people are in favor of ever-increasing connectivity, and require it even in the most mundane of appliances. I realized this while shopping for a water heater about three years ago. Reading the reviews, I expected most details to be about the quality of the water heater and if it was an efficient user of electrons. Instead, several users marked off a star or two because it didn’t feature Wi-fi connectivity. I’d never considered before how a water heater might need such connectivity, so I bought the model without it.

Since then I’ve been utterly devastated on multiple occasions when I couldn’t check the status of my water heater from bed, or at work. Or not…

This question was prompted by news reported yesterday about the new Ford Mustang Mach-E and its over-the-air updates. Manufacturers claim the advantages of such connectivity are great: Updates and improvements can be made to your car without your intervention (or knowledge). Patches in the software can fix problems before you encounter them, saving you stress and anxiety about the weak points of your car. And additional features of later software versions can be added to your older vehicle, bringing it up to par with the latest new product at dealer lots. It’s a win-win!

The downside here is the potential to charge you up front for tech which never arrives (ahem, Tesla), or to remove software the initial customer paid for when the car is resold to an unsuspecting second party (again, Tesla). A third concern is arising presently in the case of Volkswagen and the not-ready-will-ship ID.3. Because updates are downloadable and limitless, manufacturers will launch their product as an unfinished beta test, asking consumers to pony up full asking price for a car with incomplete software and features.

This consumers-as-testers methodology has occurred in the video game industry already, usually called “early access.” In many examples (which have escalated in frequency over the past five years or so), a developer put their game out in early access before it was finished. The promise is always that the final game will be completed soon, and released at no additional charge to the early access buyers. Sometimes the game is improved, finalized, and released. But other times it becomes abandonware, after the newly funded developer makes a nice return on their investment and moves on.

I can see this happening more and more in cars equipped with over-the-air in the future. When updates are unlimited and relatively low-cost, there’s less incentive to get the product right before consumers go and buy it. Just fix it later, no big deal.

What do you think about over-the-air connectivity? Is it a great way for product to be continually supported and improved by manufacturers? Or is it mostly a way to rush product to market and exercise greater control over access to features?

[Image: VW]

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28 Comments on “QOTD: Do You Care for Over-the-air?...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I don’t mind it, it has some wonderful advantages for my car. I just want to be able to control what information is seen by who when. The same goes for my computers, phones and any devices

  • avatar
    DedBull

    After having multiple cars that required a return to the dealer for software updates, OTA updates sound like a great time savings. Many consumers don’t even know the patches and updates exist, especially when they are a TSB and not a full fledged recall campaign. On the other hand, I would like to see this capability limited to write only to the modules in the car. The manufacturers don’t need to know my call history, my radio favorites, or my GPS data. I have not read my owner’s manual page by page, I may have already given that right up.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      This is one of the reasons I use a separate GPS from my car. I don’t want my travel data available to anyone who wants it

      • 0 avatar
        dwford

        I get monthly emails from OnStar about my car’s performance, even though I don’t subscribe. So, yeah, they are watching your car at all times.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      @DedBull: Personally, I think you’re being paranoid. However, while it may not track you per-se, in the event of crash the on-board systems may choose to call and/or mark your current location for emergency response units. The rest of that is very probably TMI (Too Much Information) and is either not delivered or more likely not even sent to the OEM.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Triangulation. Your cell phones and GPS use it. “Somebody’s watching me” – Rockwell

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    What about 20 years down the road when the poorly vetted software, that has been patched over the air multiple times and new bugs added along the way – as is ALWAYS the case. The product will indeed eventually become “abandonware”. You better hope that the last update was a solid one and didn’t screw up other things about the car that already worked. People always see the upside potential of this stuff but there’s plenty of downside.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Good point, I can’t imagine all this tech aging very well. Will we have classic/antique cars in the future? I don’t see how

      • 0 avatar
        jack4x

        Specialty and rare cars will have owners devoted enough to pay what it takes to keep them on the road.

        What I think will be lost is the modern equivalent of the 6 cyl/3 on the tree domestic car of the 60s, where a few survive almost by accident. No one will be shelling out to keep a RAV4 drivable in 2050.

        • 0 avatar
          Imagefont

          What you’re saying is that the aftermarket will come to the rescue, just as it does now. If there are enough of a particular model on the road, there’s money to be made and aftermarket companies will provide parts and services to compete with the OEM. However, software might be a harder nut to crack. I’m quite sure that Tesla, for example, has pretty strong encryption to prevent hacking. I’m sure they’ll maintain that software indefinitely, assuming they’ll still be in the car business when you need help. This might be an over reaction but it’s an example of how cars going forward might not be so easy to refurbish or maintain as they age. If your computer, that controls everything, craps out and you need a new one I’m not convinced the aftermarket would be able to provide a replacement – it would have to be profitable. Getting a used one from a junk yard might require reprogramming or pairing. which again might take you back to the OEM. Anyway just a thought. At the very least refurbishing a connected and highly computer dependent car might be prohibitively expensive. Car as cell phone – obsoleted over time.

          • 0 avatar
            jack4x

            That is my point, it will be profitable for those cars that people consider spending money to keep alive.

            Example: I have no doubt that the parts and software I need to keep my 2013 Viper going will be available indefinitely, from either Chrysler or the aftermarket. Someone will take that leap and charge handsomely for it. The owners will pay it because the alternative is junking a car that is still worth a lot of money.

            On the other hand, my Fiesta or my wife’s van will probably reach a point where they can’t be kept roadworthy anymore. Even though they sold literally 1000 times as many of them, not enough people will be willing to invest the kind of money it takes to keep a 20 year old car running in 2037.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        If the software has been patched multiple times, you can always do a complete rewrite. I’m going through that now. Took me a while, but I figured out it’s just quicker to rewrite it.

        If the source code isn’t available for antiques, I’m sure there will be open source replacements for hardware and software. Vintage hardware and controllers can always be replaced with FPGAs. Just like we do now. If I was going to restore a vintage 1st. gen Leaf in 2040, I’d probably put in the latest hub motors, controllers, and batteries in it. Replace the dash with my own OLEDs or whatever we use for displays then and replicate the dash via software. For hardware, just 3D print it. I do that now, but by then we should have some really amazing 3d printers.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Good point, imagefont, but if the car’s desirable enough, there might be people who can “do coding” on it, much as there are people who make replacement parts for classic cars today.

      • 0 avatar
        jack4x

        My hope would be some form of universal PCM architecture that’s programmable for an individual make and model, and then a plug and play install.

        That plus widespread adoption of 3D printing would do a lot for keeping cars on the road.

      • 0 avatar
        JMII

        The problem is many of these systems are locked down. They have encryption or digital keys that only the dealer has thru an OEM software license.

        I know on the GM side you can pull a radio module from a junk yard but have to get it programmed using your VIN. Thankfully 3rd parties offer this service but they are still using the OEM’s tools and licenses, they just provide custom work and cheaper prices. However the day GM switches off whatever system is doing the encoding is the day these 3rd parties and thus us as consumers are SOL. The only hope is releasing the code via open source when they realize the market is too small to be a viable revenue stream.

        Still need an old laptop around that can run the software. At some point a Windows update will break the application. “abandonware” is the perfect name for this stuff. You see this all the time with any software that “phones home” for authentication. Poof – one day it just stops working.

  • avatar
    JMII

    Given how much stuff is run thru the infotainment system in a modern car OTA updates are pretty much a requirement these days. A simple example is the navigation system – how else are you going to get a map update? Drive to the dealer? Wait 2 hours for them to plug a cable into the car and push the upload button? UGH! I don’t go back to AT&T or Apple when there is a new version of Candy Crush.

    Of course for the OEM its better to sell you a new car then provide updates for an older model… but that is a kick in the sack in terms of customer service. Especially for a purchase that should last for a decade or more.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    For the record, software developers don’t always release an “early access” to unwitting buyers. Sometimes it is the full version, fresh out of limited beta testing and released into the world for everyone to beta test. I believe it was the latest Batman game that eventually got pulled from the market because it was so full of bugs. I will have to check Arstechnica again on that.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    This wouldn’t bother me one bit, as long as I’m the one choosing to go forward with the update. What bothers me is stuff like Apple requiring over-air updates that mess up their phones’ performance, which was their charming way of getting people to buy new phones.

  • avatar
    dwford

    Automakers have shown themselves not very interested in keeping the current systems updated, so why would I ever hope that making them OTA capable would be some sort of improvement?

    Do you really want to wake up to find that your car is glitching because of some overnight software update?

    Cars are like kitchen appliances. We expect them to just work, and work for years without worry. I, for one, don’t want a car that thinks it’s my phone or laptop.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Having experienced bad updates cripple other hardware I own, I’m also unsure about OTA updates. It sounds great, but…

    In fact, the more of this stuff I see, the longer I want to hang on to my 2009-era car…

  • avatar
    cbrworm

    I would prefer to not get automatic OTA updates, but I would like to have the option to update my software via some method that I control if required. I’ve not owned a car that has needed updates to continue to function. I have owned cars that have had updates available to improve some function, and have elected to do, or not do those updates.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Sometimes I hear about a new device and think “that’s nice” Just not nice enough to buy another subscriptions or have to deal rebooting devices.

  • avatar
    micko4472

    I’m not a big fan of OTA patches, for the following reasons: (1) my car
    is working fine as is; (2) it is IMPOSSIBLE to test for all possible
    conditions the patched software will have to handle, so I don’t want
    potentially (dangerously) buggy software patches applied without my
    knowledge; (3) I want to decide if I need a patch; (4) if the patch is
    buggy and causes problems (crashes, breakdowns, failures of any
    description, who pays to fix the problem?

    So, not OTA patches for me. That’s why I’m keeping my 10yo Xterra.

  • avatar
    Jon

    Another problem with OTA patches is that they tempt the manufacturer to less thoroughly test its product before release, since it has a quick and easy method for patching the problems. OTA fixes will likely result in a gen1 product that is less reliable and more glitchy than products that dont have OTA capability.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I certainly see advantages to OTA updates, even if there are also some disadvantages. As a personal anecdote, I have received many OTA updates in my 2019 pickup truck that are intended to improve the functionality of the infotainment stack. Most of the time, these updates are practically invisible, outside of the need to acknowledge their installation. However, there have been some occasions where the update has ‘broken’ previous functionality–mostly with relation to using Apple Car Play (and possibly Android Auto, though I cannot confirm that.) On the other hand, in each case I was able to telephone On Star either directly through the vehicle’s systems or by personal phone and explain the issue and get either a rollback or second push of the update which would resolve the issue the same day.

    As such, OTA updates have a huge advantage over having to return to the dealership–often at a cost–to get a plug-in update. Additionally, though I don’t know if this is or will be true across the industry, such updates could be used to improve the performance and/or economy, handling and ride of a given vehicle or type. Tesla has clearly used OTA to improve almost all aspects of their cars, whereas others have limited it more to the user interface with no obvious affect on vehicle performance of which I am aware.

    I do think, however, that as engines and transmissions are heavily controlled by computers today that performance and economy can be improved through OTA as new programming becomes available or even simple adjustments of small variables when a given vehicle learns to ‘predict’ power needs more quickly than the old vacuum line shifters could do. With my wife’s 9-speed automatic and even my own 8-speed automatic, I’ve been able to teach the transmission to predict power demands for grades to the point that it now downshifts automatically at the bottom of the grade before the vehicle has lost more than a single mph and doesn’t have to ‘hunt’ through several gears to maintain steady speeds and good economy. My truck is EPA rated to 24mpg highway and it has exceeded 27mpg even factoring in a route featuring hilly country in the first third of the trip and a moderately steady up-river run along the foothills of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania. My wife’s 9-speed with a much smaller engine and notably less horsepower and torque exceeds 28mpg on its own 24mpg EPA rating.

    This would be an advantage of machine learning after being manually taught when to shift in real-world driving the could then be uplinked to the OEM and passed forward to other vehicles through OTA updates. This is essentially how Tesla does it today and would be an example of how all OEMs could improve their products.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    My personal preference is to consider that I have purchased a vehicle from a manufacturer through a dealer and it is mine. This preference hasn’t changed since my first new vehicle purchase in ’72 (a VW Type 2). I make the assumption (sometimes faulty but not very) that the vehicle is what it was advertised to be at time of sale and needed nothing extra from the manufacturer (or, shudder, the dealer) for it to operate successfully during my ownership. If the manufacturer wants my input concerning my ownership (likes, dislikes, recommendations) they can send me a form to fill out – they do not need to “communicate” with my vehicle behind the scene in any way. If there is a serious need to upgrade/update my vehicle for some reason, I can be reached by mail/email to allow me to decide on my own the path to take – this worked for all my many vehicles purchased since that ’72 Type 2. I have attempted to electronically “harden” my F350 with everything short of a Faraday cage to keep the manufacturer dumb about my vehicle – someday I’ll figure out how FordConnect sees my vehicle and remove that comm link also. It’s my vehicle, purchased by me and for me and really none of the manufacturers business after the sale. Yeah, I’m the guy that tells the dealers at delivery to remove the license plate frames with the dealership logo and the dealership stickers when they refuse to pay me my $150 monthly fee for free advertising on MY new vehicle.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    Just think, as emission requirements get tighter, your car will no longer need to be grandfathered in. The manufacturer can neuter your car from a distance to get it into compliance. Suddenly, flooring the gas pedal only gets you 80% of the throttle it used to. Less fuel going into the cylinders. And in case you didn’t get a car with tattletale software, companies like Ford can now make sure that the insurance companies can better keep tabs on you doing 37 in a 35.

    But it’s all for your own good, that’s for sure!

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