Opinion: Over the Air Updates Bad, Owning the Car Good

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras

Software updates. Precisely when we had to start having a conversation about software updates – over the air or otherwise – in an automotive context isn’t something I can answer. We didn’t have them for about 100 years. Then, we did. What’s more, it seems like everyone is more or less OK with that, but should they be? Are these software updates really making your car better, or are they slowly throttling back your car’s performance and functionality in a bid to frustrate you into buying a new one?

Let’s take a few minutes to explore the possibilities.

THE CASE AGAINST OTA SOFTWARE UPDATES

I was working as a service advisor at a Volvo store when I really encountered “software updates” as a regular part of vehicle service. Sure, I’d run across software updates and version codes at some of the tuning firms I’d worked at – but those were special cars. The SPA Volvos were arguably special, too, but they were much more ordinary than a C63 AMG or R35 GT-R. Still, the then-new Volvo XC90s needed software updates.

The touchscreen isn’t working? Software update. Adaptive cruise control not adapting the way you thought it should? Software update. Hearing a high-pitched whistling sound when you drive? Software update. The door isn’t opening the picosecond you’re reaching for it? Probably a dead key battery. Replace the battery, then run a software update (just in case).

If it wasn’t presented as such a matter-of-course thing, it would have been laughable – but more than one customer asked us why it was that they had to come in for a software update. Why couldn’t their car just update over WiFi while it was parked in the garage? Now, I don’t think this word-track came from Volvo Cars, but we were telling customers at the time that the reason had something to do with Volvo’s emphasis on safety and reliability.

“What if you need to rush to the ER at 3 AM,” we would ask, “and your car was halfway through an update? You’d have to wait. Worse, what if the connection failed halfway through because of a power outage or someone turning the router off and on? The car might not start in the morning.”

Whether that was the official word or not, it seems like it had some truth to it. Bloomberg reported on an NIO driver in China who found themselves stuck in a chaotic traffic jam for over an hour when the car they were driving was immobilized by an over-the-air update. And this wasn’t, “the car won’t go” stuck. This was, “I’m trapped!” stuck. According to the South China Morning Post, the NIO driver who was stuck in the car posted “Police officers came, one group after another, yet we could not even wind the window down,” on the Chinese social media site Weibo.

Now, sure – it’s easy enough, in some circles, to simply say, “That’s China!” and move on. The thing is, it’s not just Chinese off-brands that we don’t know anything about here in ‘Murica, it’s happening to the high-end jobs, too. There are credible reports of a Ferrari bricking itself in a parking garage, and enough Teslas bricked themselves during the 2019 “holiday” update that Mashable wrote a how-to article to walk you through rebooting your Model 3. So, like, it’s a thing.

The update can go bad, the car can get stuck, etc. Those are the obvious drawbacks to OTA updates, but tighten up your tin hat and join me in yet another little thought experiment as you ask yourself whether or not there might be more downsides to an OTA update. Like, sinister downsides.

MY TIN HAT IS READY, NO OTA FOR ME

Consider the latest buzz around the Mercedes-Benz EQS and its rear-wheel steering. That rear-wheel steering is a $575 annual option that’s “enforced” by – you guessed it – OTA updates. A quick drive down the Autobahn and VW is charging you after the fact to use the hardware you already bought, billing you about $8.50/hr., to use its autonomous drive mode. It’s just another part of the futuristic dystopia that German automakers especially ( but not exclusively) would love to herd us all into by “ reimagining the ownership model”, which is just a fancy way of saying that they never want you to own your own car.

What happens if you do happen to “break the rules” and buy your car from someone other than a manufacturer or franchise dealer, then? A quick and easy OTA update will make sure you pay for your insubordination – like this guy who bought a used Tesla Model S last year, only to have the car’s Autopilot features yoinked away by the next OTA update. That’s despite the fact that the car came with those $8,000-ish options from the factory, and the fact that the selling dealership bought the car at an auction that was held by Tesla, itself.

How can you even begin to have conversations about Right to Repair or the multibillion-dollar aftermarket industry and all the people it employs if a company has the power to decide what features it wants your car to have from a thousand miles away? Or, worse, if they’ve managed to successfully “reimagine your ownership experience” to the point that you no longer own, well – anything?

THROTTLING PERFORMANCE

Even if there is some sort of legislation passed (or, more likely, some product developed) to block the more obviously nefarious, option-deleting possibilities inherent in an OTA “update” scenario, that doesn’t mean the consumer has won. There are more subtle ways for the carmakers to punish and annoy us into buying a new car – and there’s a precedent from a company that doesn’t make cars right now but might be planning to: Apple.

Yes, the same Apple who agreed to pay a $500 million settlement for throttling back the performance of older hardware by artificially limiting processor speeds as the devices aged has been looking at the car market for some time, but that throttling issue is informative. Dubbed “Batterygate” in the media, the changes made by the OTA update were done to prevent “real” issues with some older batteries. The problem was so real that Apple paid $500 million because they felt bad about not properly explaining their new hardware fix – which tracks, right?

I mean, this is just me – and certainly NOT the powers-that-be at TTAC and VerticalScope – but it really kinda feels like this was done so Apple owners would think their devices were slowing down prematurely and buy a new one, doesn’t it? And, for what it’s worth, the courts in France and Germany agreed, slapping additional 25 million Euros worth of fines on the Cupertino tech giant ( so far).

So, what does this really mean for us, the lowly consumers?

Honestly, not much. If you want a new car with new tech, this is the way it is. As my brother-in-law so eloquently put it, “What do I care if the bankers holding my mortgage have alien reptile DNA? I still have to pay the mortgage.”

That is to say that, yeah, we’re going to get shafted – sometimes. Other times, though, we’ll get stuff like Tesla’s objectively awesome Dog Mode or Sentry for free. That doesn’t make everything OK, of course, but it’s better than paying $149 for a USB stick with a few new rural highway off-ramps on it. Right?

You’re the Best and Brightest – tell us what you think about OTA updates and planned obsolescence and reptilian alien banking cabals in the comments.

[Image: Den Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock.com]

Jo Borras
Jo Borras

I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.

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  • Ol Shel Ol Shel on Aug 26, 2021

    This is entirely our fault. We refuse to, en masse, demand that our elected officials prevent this theft from the consuming public. We don't, and since big tech's money is more influential than our tepid opposition, tech wins every time.

  • Erin Getting Erin Getting on Oct 12, 2023

    How can I find out when car manufacturers started the OTA updates (or even those that had to be done at a dealer)? I am definitely old school when it comes to this kind of thing. I would rather have a slightly less perfectly running engine over someone just changing my programming or taking away functions from afar. I can find a bunch of lower mileage older cars for sale, but this is really a pain point for me.

  • Dartdude Having the queen of nothing as the head of Dodge is a recipe for disaster. She hasn't done anything with Chrysler for 4 years, May as well fold up Chrysler and Dodge.
  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.
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