What Over-The-Air Updates Mean for the Longevity of Consumer Cars

Today, the longevity of a car is not contingent on style, but rather digital capabilities. Leading OEMs that efficiently deploy updates to address issues and improve customer experiences are likely to retain customers.

4 Min Read
Tesla introduced over-the-air updates on 2012 models.

In 2012, groundbreaking technology disrupted the automotive industry: the first over-the-air (OTA) update was introduced by Tesla to a pool of about 100 drivers. Since then, technology has revolutionized the way automakers and consumers interact and view their cars. Leading automakers have adopted OTAs to introduce new features and resolve software issues in millions of consumer vehicles on the road today.

 In early 2018 in the U.S., 33 models across five brands had OTA capabilities. In late 2023, around 309 models across 23 brands had OTA capabilities. The automotive industry has exploded with OTA enhancement, a testament to the pivotal role of OTAs in the highly competitive automotive landscape. The impact of OTAs is felt not only in the day-to-day functionality but also in the longevity of vehicles once they are in the hands of consumers.

Understanding OTAs

Let’s drill down into the types of over-the-air updates and how they can contribute to the longevity of a vehicle:

In vehicles with software-over-the-air (SOTA) capabilities, automakers can augment a vehicle’s software by delivering an update over a cellular network or Wi-Fi connection remotely. In most cases, they can be downloaded automatically in the background by the vehicle while in use, then send an alert to the driver once the ignition is turned off. Most updates can be completed in minutes, though larger updates may take a few hours.

Vehicles with firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) capabilities require more intensive technical capabilities from the vehicle’s memory storage, battery life, connectivity, and cybersecurity barriers for successful deployment. As the name implies, FOTA updates impact the firmware of the car, the specialized software embedded in the hardware. This can act as the go-between for the vehicle’s software and hardware. Not every software-defined connected vehicle has the capability of FOTA updates, though they are typically more common in newer EV models. However, colloquially, and even within the industry, you are likely to hear of both being referred to as simply OTA updates.

For Automakers, the Difference is Digital

In the past, updates to consumer vehicles have been mainly cosmetic, with no new major changes to capabilities until the introduction of advanced software. The focus has now shifted to digital differentiation. Today, the longevity of a car is not contingent on style, but rather, digital capabilities. Leading OEMs that efficiently deploy updates to address issues and improve customer experiences are likely to retain customers for more extended periods. OEMs that fail to do so risk falling short of customer expectations and thus falling behind.

OTA updates provide many key features and capabilities that can impact a vehicle's longevity. OTAs can augment or enhance the core driving functions of the car, such as regenerative braking to save energy/battery power in extreme weather conditions or automatic braking in an emergency. A software amendment can also be deployed to direct windshield wipers to activate based on the intensity of a rainstorm. Optimizing these core functions allows the vehicle to evolve more safely and perform more efficiently, increasing the lifespan of the car itself.

Utilizing data gathered from the vehicle, OEMs can seamlessly deploy targeted OTA updates, improving the overall user experience without any downtime for the customer. The ability to remotely make changes to a vehicle’s software capabilities has unlocked a trove of possibilities for consumers, giving new life to older vehicles.

Optimizing Capabilities and Adding Functionality Is Crucial to Longevity

In a 2012 survey, new buyers only owned their previous vehicle for 6 years on average. After the introduction of the OTA update, drivers in the U.S. reported owning their vehicles for an average of 8 years in 2023. In some ways, it’s too early to fully understand the impact of OTA updates on the automotive industry and the average vehicle lifecycle, but this early data is a strong indicator of what is to come. Automotive capabilities are constantly advancing, and with them, the length of vehicle ownership is expected to continue to rise as more software-defined vehicles hit the road.  

The key to ensuring any vehicle will last is routine maintenance, and today, that includes routine OTAs. OTA updates should be deployed regularly not only to acquire new capabilities, but also to keep the vehicle secure, ensure driver satisfaction and solve minor issues within the software before they become major.

Ensuring Longevity for the Road Ahead

OTA updates streamline the car maintenance process by decreasing the need for consumers to take a vehicle into the dealership for software updates, making it less disruptive to daily life. As OTA-eligible domains continue to expand, OEMs can continue to provide new vehicle features that prolong the lifetime of the car while keeping it feeling fresh and up-to-date even years down the road.

About the Author(s)

Cian O’Cuinneagain

Cian O’Cuinneagain is chief product officer for Cubic Telecom, a global provider of software-defined connected-vehicle solutions.

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