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As more cars update themselves, the convenience could bring risks

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The next two years will see a dramatic increase in the number of vehicles capable of over-the-air software updates.

The big picture: OTA software updates are a convenient delivery method for rolling out new features and protecting increasingly sophisticated vehicles from safety and cyber threats — if the right security and logistics measures are in place.

Currently, routine vehicle software updates or changes can require a recall, which elevates the perceived severity of commonplace software maintenance and involves a time-consuming, costly installation by a certified dealer technician.

The impact:

What's needed: For automakers and car owners to successfully embrace OTA software updates, there will need to be encrypted software keys and other tools to implement effective safety and security measures. Functionally, some updates may need to be installed exclusively while the vehicle is not being operated.

Yes, but: Different updates will still likely require varying levels of driver and dealer intervention to complete.

  • For instance, cybersecurity updates should be automatic, whereas ADAS-related updates should require driver approval and training on any new features.
  • It could be possible to make any updates that impact vehicle operation active only after the driver views a training video, reads through a tutorial, or receives training from the dealer.
  • Unsuccessful or incompatible installs should automatically roll back to the prior version, ensuring continuity and safety.

What to watch: GM is launching a new OTA platform in 2020, FCA will offer OTA in all new vehicles by 2022, and Jaguar plans to expand its OTA rollout after successful tests with management cars.

Oren Betzaleli is an SVP at Harman, which develops OTA, cloud and cybersecurity systems for automakers, including FCA, Jaguar and others.