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OTA Software Updates for Your Car?! John Donovan

Now here’s a scary thought: You’re driving down the freeway in heavy traffic when the LCD screen in your dashboard that was previously displaying a song title suddenly informs you that the firmware for your car’s 100+ electronic control units (ECUs) has been updated wirelessly and you need to reboot your car for them to take effect. What happens if you’re distracted and don’t press the No button soon enough? If your car were my PC it would reboot automatically. Not so good at 70 mph. 

I recently received an email inviting me to attend a webinar on over-the-air (OTA) software updates for automotive systems. The whole concept is enough to frighten anyone who has ever used a PC. Good grief, can’t that wait until my next oil change? A firmware update would make a nice chargeable service at the dealer’s, along with checking the transmission and rotating the tires. 

Automotive OTA software updates strike me as a solution looking for a problem. We can do it, therefore we should do it. Maybe not! 

It’s very likely that the firmware in numerous ECUs could stand to be updated at some point and the software in in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems much more often. Automotive manufacturers are starting to evaluate software over-the-air (SOTA) and firmware over-the-air (FOTA) packages. Update options include remote or local, to be performed by the manufacturer, dealer, or owner—the question is how. Local hardwired updates at the dealer are one thing but remote, wireless updates by the owner are quite another. 

OTA of any sort requires that the car have cloud connectivity and that a remote server be able to query a gateway in the car regarding the status of its various ECUs and IVI systems. So far such connectivity is rare, with numerous wireless protocols competing for the privilege—even assuming that the highway infrastructure can be updated to handle this in a large scale. Still, what happens if connectivity or power is lost during a download? Can you automatically roll back to the previous system—in real time? How easy would it be to hack the download packages? It’s been done before. 

SOTA/FOTA is popular with automotive OEMs. They could eliminate the need for mass recalls and long waits at the dealer for same—not a happy thought, but a valid one. More appealing to the vehicle owner SOTA/FOTA could update IVI features to keep up with rapidly changing consumer tastes, which automotive systems—designed a year or two before they hit production—typically lag. 

Not to be a Luddite, but I think a certain amount of skepticism is in order regarding OTA software updates for cars. In some form this may well be the wave of the future, but it’s a future for which I’d just as soon not be a Beta tester.



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John Donovan is editor/publisher of www.low-powerdesign.com and ex-Editor-in-Chief of Portable Design, Managing Editor of EDN Asia, and Asian editor of Circuits Assembly and Printed Circuit Fabrication. He has 30 years experience as a technical writer, editor and semiconductor PR flack, having survived earlier careers as a C programmer and microwave technician.




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