Stories for this week:
2. Tesla is attracting 'gearheads' with its Model 3
3. Big Auto plays catch-up with Tesla's software update strategy
[Paywall - text is below]
Detroit Downloads Tesla’s Software Strategy
Industry moves toward wireless updates to repair problems and deliver extras
By Mike Colias
Auto makers have outfitted new cars with a lot of technology, effectively turning them into computers on wheels. Their next challenge: refreshing the software remotely, so people don’t have to drive to the dealership for updates.
Electric car maker Tesla Inc. pioneered the concept of selling wirelessly updatable cars, demonstrating that it is possible to beam down fixes and new features to the vehicle much in the same way consumers download new software to their smartphones.
Now General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and other traditional auto makers are trying to catch up, hoping to save billions in warranty and other repair costs by correcting problems via internet-transmitted fixes. So far, their ability to send over-the-air updates remains largely limited to simple changes in the multimedia display, such as sending new data to refresh navigation maps. More complex tasks, like issuing a software patch to repair a steering defect, typically require a trip to the dealership.
“Our industry kind of looked at [wireless updates] as more of a Silicon Valley thing,” said Glen De Vos, chief technology officer at automotive supplier Aptiv PLC, which specializes in electronics and safety systems. “I think people now see the value.”
GM has said it would introduce its first fully updatable vehicle this year and expand the capability across its lineup, likely over the next several years. Ford will offer over-the-air updates on a new electric sport-utility vehicle scheduled to go on sale next year, said Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets.
And auto supplier Harman International Industries Inc. is working with at least 10 major auto makers to introduce cars that are wirelessly updatable in the coming years, Senior Vice President Oren Betzaleli said. Research firm IHS Markit forecasts global sales of fully updatable vehicles will rise from less than 500,000 last year to 35 million in 2025.
It will take years for car companies to broadly offer the capability, partly because remotely updating major functions on a vehicle is a radical shift for the industry. Auto makers are slowly beginning the process by rewiring the electrical guts of the car to centralize a hodgepodge of software systems that now control mechanical functions like brakes and transmissions, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid said.
Many vehicles sold today don’t come with the built-in internet connections needed to transmit updates. Wireless updates could bring problems, too; analysts say there have been instances of over-the-air tweaks to multimedia systems that failed and sent owners’ dashboard displays into endless reboots.
“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,” Mr. Abuelsamid said. “That might work for a photo-sharing app, but not for cars.”
Pushing updates into internet-connected cars also introduces the possibility of cyberhacking, and ensuring robust cybersecurity is likely to slow auto makers down.
“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.
Tesla had the advantage of designing a new model from the ground up, allowing it to develop one central computing brain that manages changes to the car’s various components. For years, the Silicon Valley maker of luxury electric cars has been transmitting over-the-air updates for everything from safety fixes to add-ons customers can download after they buy the car, such as a boost in horsepower for an even faster version of its so-called Ludicrous Mode, which lets drivers accelerate at racecar-like speed.
In 2013, Tesla remotely raised the ground clearance on thousands of cars to avoid hitting objects on roads at highway speeds. In 2017, Elon Musk’s company sent a wireless software update to extend battery life for owners in Florida fleeing a hurricane.
“It’s a massive differentiator for them,” said Roger Lanctot, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics.
Wireless updates could save on repair costs by allowing both consumers and car companies to avoid dealership work and improve the rate at which recalled vehicles get fixed, analysts say. Advisory firm ABI Research in a report last year said software-related glitches cost auto makers around $17 billion a year globally.
Last fall, GM recalled more than 1 million trucks and SUVs to correct a software glitch that caused a steering defect on some models. GM had customers take their cars to the dealership and then paid technicians to update the software—a cost that likely could have been avoided by a wirelessly transmitted fix, say analysts. A GM spokesman said over-the-air updates can reduce costs but declined to comment on whether it could have been used to fix the steering defect.
Eventually, the wireless updates could also alter the nature of car ownership by allowing customers 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,” said Ford’s Mr. Farley. “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.”
Tesla’s prolific use of wireless updates has shown the appeal of owning a car that can get better over time, Mr. Lanctot said.
Alexander Chemerys says his Model S has wirelessly received many noticeable enhancements since he bought the sedan in July, including an improved automatic-steering feature.
“To get not just bug fixes but new features every few months is like getting a new car,” said Mr. Chemerys, a 41-year-old cybersecurity engineer from Chantilly, Va.