Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

To get a car with the latest automated driving features all it takes in some cases is a couple of software updates — a growing trend with potential safety and cybersecurity risks.

Why it matters: Using a built-in wireless connection to fix a bug or add new functions can be a welcome convenience that can also prompt people to make needed repairs. But if it means instantly handing over more of the driving task to your vehicle, you could be putting yourself at risk if the new software is glitchy or you don't understand and misuse the car's new capabilities.

Background: Except for the occasional map or infotainment update, most cars are frozen in time when they leave the lot, requiring a trip to the dealership for software-related recalls or updates.

  • That results in higher warranty costs for automakers and a hassle for car owners.
  • Tesla pioneered the concept of making cars more capable over time, pushing out hundreds of over-the-air (OTA) updates to things like steering, braking and windshield wipers since introducing its Model S in 2012.
  • Following the 2015 debut of Autopilot, Tesla has regularly used OTA updates to add more advanced driver-assist features like automatic lane changes.

What's happening: Following Tesla's lead, automakers are beginning to embrace the idea of OTA software updates, whether to handle recalls or add new driving features.

  • GM and Ford say they'll enable OTA updates by 2020.
  • Legacy automakers must first design new vehicle electrical architectures that can accept flash updates; Tesla's cars were designed like smartphones to do that from the start.
  • Tesla's other advantage: it has an in-house team of software developers that can push out updates quickly, notes Gartner Group analyst Mike Ramsey.

Yes, but: Cars are becoming more automated overnight, gaining new superpowers they didn't possess the day before.

  • Precautions are needed to ensure drivers fully understand and are comfortable with their car's new capabilities — and that remote software updates were completed properly and securely.
  • Remote updates create potential opportunities for malicious hackers to intercept and replace legitimate software with malware that could affect the car's performance.
  • Updates can be tricky: Sometimes they've inadvertently disabled other systems.
  • Tesla customers receive detailed release notes explaining every software update and can watch videos or visit a Tesla store to learn how new features work, but it's optional.

The bottom line: It's not enough. Some people already mistakenly believe their car can drive itself. Adding more automation could lead to further confusion.

  • Some experts suggest requiring a brief check by a dealership technician and a mandatory tutorial before more advanced automated-driving software can be activated.
  • In setting policies on autonomous vehicles, regulators could also consider how to address OTA updates that progressively add new layers of automation.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

U.S. policy shift will allow taxpayer funding for projects in West Bank settlements

Friedman (L) with Netanyahu. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel will announce tomorrow that they are expanding three agreements on scientific cooperation to include Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Israeli and U.S. officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is a substantial policy shift for the U.S., which did not previously allow its taxpayers' money to be spent in the Israeli settlements.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Politics: Obama: Trump is "jealous of COVID's media coverage" Axios-Ipsos poll: Federal response has only gotten worse.
  2. Health: Hospitals face a crush — 13 states set single-day case records last week.
  3. Business: Winter threat spurs new surge of startup activity.
  4. Media: Pandemic causes TV providers to lose the most subscribers ever.
  5. States: Nearly two dozen Minnesota cases traced to three Trump campaign events.
  6. World: Putin mandates face masks.

McConnell: Confirming Amy Coney Barrett will help GOP retain Senate

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed no regrets about Judge Amy Coney Barrett's controversial confirmation, telling Politico in an interview that he believes the decision to place her on the Supreme Court just a week before the election will help Republicans retain the Senate.

Why it matters: With a week to go until Election Day, many Republicans are concerned that President Trump's unpopularity could cost them the Senate. McConnell has long viewed the transformation of the federal judiciary through the confirmation of young conservative judges as his defining legacy.