Automakers embrace Tesla’s wireless vehicle update strategy

Carmakers have succeeded in equipping their vehicles with so much technology they’ve basically become driveable computers. Now they face another challenge—refreshing their software remotely so customers don’t have to come to the dealership for updates, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Tesla

The electric carmaker Tesla initially unveiled vehicles that could be updated wirelessly—showing the rest of the industry that beaming fixes and new features to a car similarly to how people download new software to their smartphones was possible.

Now, The Wall Street Journal reports General Motors (GM), Ford and Toyota and other traditional carmakers are following Tesla’s lead. The companies hope that solving problems wirelessly will help them save billions of dollars in warranty and repair costs. For now however, the only updates they’ve been able to achieve over the Internet are in their cars’ multimedia display like sending new data to refresh the car’s navigation system maps. The more involved updates still require the customer to come into the dealership.

“Our industry kind of looked at [wireless updates] as more of a Silicon Valley thing,” Glen De Vos, chief technology officer at automotive supplier Aptiv PLC, which specializes in electronics and safety systems, told The Wall Street Journal. “I think people now see the value.”

GM stated it plans to unveil its first 100% updatable vehicle this year and continue to expand its offerings with this capability during the next several years. Meanwhile, Ford looks to offer wireless updates on one of its new electric SUV’s that’s expected to go on sale in 2020. The Wall Street Journal also reports auto supplier Harman International Industries is working with at least 10 major automakers to come out with wireless updatable vehicles in the next few years. According to research firm HIS Markit, the number of completely vehicles will jump from less than 500,000 last year to 35 million in 2025.

It will most likely be years before car companies can offer fully updatable vehicles in a broad capacity, according to The Wall Street Journal. One reason is because the updating process when it comes to a vehicle’s major functions is a big change for the industry. Automakers are just now, slowly, beginning to rework cars’ electrical inner-workings in order to centralize the software systems that control vital parts like the brakes and transmission, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told The Wall Street Journal.

There are other issues that slow the rollout of wireless updatable vehicles. For example, a lot of vehicles are not equipped with the Internet connections necessary to transmit the updates. Analysts have also said the wireless updates themselves could cause problems like over-the-air changes failing and causing the owners’ dashboard display to continuously reboot. There’s also the issue of the owners’ car being vulnerable to hackers, which could cause carmakers to take additional time to ensure their products are cyber-secure.

“We could end up in a bad place if the industry remotely puts out technology that users don’t understand, figuring they can fix any problems later,” Abuelsamid told The Wall Street Journal. “That might work for a photo-sharing app, but not for cars.”

“We’re not going to do this without highly thought-out cybersecurity measures, which I’m not sure gets enough attention,” GM President Mark Reuss said in an interview.

One advantage Tesla has had over its counterparts is it designed a new model from scratch. Doing so allowed the company to develop one central computing brain that manages any changes to the car’s different components. Tesla has already been sending wireless updates to its cars for safety fixes and add-on features customers can download after they’ve purchased the vehicle.

“It’s a massive differentiator for them,” Roger Lanctot, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics told The Wall Street Journal.

Automakers like GM would most likely love to be at a place where it can make such updates remotely. Last fall, the company had to recall more than 1 million vehicles to fix a software issue that caused a steering defect on some models, according to The Wall Street Journal. Every one of those customers had to take their car to a dealership, and technicians had to be paid to update the software. GM could have saved on those costs if it was able to wirelessly make the fix, according to analysts.

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A GM spokesman stated wireless updates can reduce costs, but declined to comment on whether it could have been used to fix this particular steering defect. In the future, wireless updates could also change the nature of car ownership if customers are permitted to change and enhance the features on the vehicle throughout its life, analysts and executives say.

“We’ll use it to fix things that go wrong, for sure,” Ford President of Global Markets Jim Farley told The Wall Street Journal. “But you can also surprise and delight the customer with an experience that they didn’t expect, that you don’t charge for, and that builds loyalty to your brand.”

 

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