What is an automotive OTA update?

10 February 2022

OTA update

Cars are becoming increasingly digital, with new software capabilities redefining what was once a feat of engineering. This creates an opportunity for continual development as system updates provide fresh features, while also squashing bugs long after a model leaves the showroom.

But what are over-the-air updates, or OTA updates, how do they work, and perhaps most importantly, what do they mean for the future of cars? Autovista24 Deputy Editor Tom Geggus explains in the latest ‘What is?’ video.

All up in the air

The automotive industry is surging with OTA updates. For example, Volkswagen (VW) passenger cars hopes to update its ID. model range of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) every 12 weeks.

‘Volkswagen combines the best of two worlds – safe, appealing hardware and intelligent software,’ said Klaus Zellmer, member of the VW brand board of management for sales, marketing and after-sales. ‘We will exploit the potential of this fusion more than ever before through continuous over-the-air updates.’

Meanwhile, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) recently confirmed it would roll out Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to over 200,000 existing owners via an OTA update. ‘The seamless integration of Amazon Alexa with our Pivi Pro infotainment system gives customers simple, intuitive voice control of regularly-used features, making the driving experience even more enjoyable,’ said Alex Heslop, director of electrical and electronic engineering at JLR. ‘The fact we can also offer this new feature to existing customers proves the value of our software over-the-air-updates.’

In October, Volvo’s offshoot Polestar unveiled its P1.7, update which was mapped out to improve performance. It sported an in-car range-assistant app for improving efficiency, an eco-climate mode that allows the driver to reduce power demand, and battery-preconditioning improvements. ‘The connected nature of Polestar 2 means we can continue developing new features and improving existing attributes on a continual basis,’ said Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. ‘Since our first update late in 2020, we have released several upgrades that have improved range, efficiency, connectivity and the driving experience.’

In September last year, Renault explained its take on firmware over-the-air (FOTA). Firmware is a digital package that is stored on a hardware device to ensure it runs properly, whereas software describes a program or piece of data with which the user interacts, but both can be updated OTA. Edouard Valenciennes, FOTA project manager at Renault explained that ‘the new technology means 85% to 90% of vehicles will have up-to-date software, compared to the previous levels of 60%, at best, through our dealerships.’

Make sure to subscribe to the Autovista24 YouTube channel and sign up for notifications. If you enjoy a video, make sure to like and share it too. Let the Autovista24 team know if there are any other automotive terms you would like defined. Reach out in the comments, on Twitter or LinkedIn. Previous ‘What is?’ videos have explained bi-directional charging, electrically-chargeable vehicles (EVs), type approval, autonomous technology, seasonally-adjusted annualised rate (SAAR), total cost of ownership (TCO), and residual values (RVs).

Transcript – What is an OTA update?

I’m Autovista24 Deputy Editor Tom Geggus here with your handy what is definition. Now, of all the questions we’ve asked and then answered in our ‘What Is?’ series, this one might seem the most straightforward, but the automotive implications of OTA updates are anything but simple.

Now, you might be thinking OTA update, isn’t that what my phone does? Well, you wouldn’t be far wrong. As cars become more digitized they’re increasingly defined by software. Programs can be updated to provide new features, make improvements and correct bugs. But, how exactly does this work?

The car maker controls the device management system that issues the new software. This is uploaded onto a cloud-based server and sent to vehicles via a cellular or wi-fi connection. The car then downloads and installs the OTA updates and can send back diagnostic information.

Now, dependent upon the manufacturer, updates like these can be done in a few minutes or over the course of a night. It is likely the car needs to be parked and turned off and if it’s electric some OEMs will prefer the vehicle to be plugged in and with a good amount of charge in the battery.

So, what can be updated via OTA? Broadly, OTA updates will fall within two categories; drive control and infotainment. For example, autonomous capabilities and greater powertrain efficiency would be considered drive control. Meanwhile, map updates and fresh applications would fall under the infotainment system.

So, how does all of this affect the car as we know it? Firstly, it means fewer trips to the dealerships. Updates that were once done manually can now be completed automatically. In September 2021, Renault said the new technology means that up to 90% of vehicles will have up-to-date software. That’s compared to almost 60% through dealerships. Secondly, cars no longer need to be constrained by their hardware. They have the potential to just keep on getting better with time.

So far, the vast majority of OTA updates have been free. Car makers are just keen to show off what OTA can achieve. Some have even scheduled regular updates to keep the vehicles up to date after they roll out of the factory. For example, VW’s id range is due to receive updates every three months, but not all OTA packages are free. For example, Tesla owners can purchase different levels of this autonomous program autopilot. This is possible because the models are fitted with the necessary hardware as standard.

Monetization of software services does open up a new world of earning potential for car makers. Features or functions on demand could be downloaded and rented as needed. OTA updates and features could therefore change what a vehicle is capable of. Making more fluid and user defined.

We are going to cover functions on demand in a future installment of our ‘What Is?’ series, so make sure you give us a like and subscribe to ensure you don’t miss out and if there any other automotive industry terms you’d like us to define then go ahead and leave us a message in the comments below. We’ll catch you next time.