Wireless updates open new avenues for autos

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Mobile apps are taking the communications industry by storm. And in the near future, a new generation of these specialized bits of software could be downloaded from the sky to your car or truck.

Many automakers already offer some in-vehicle apps. But wireless, or over-the-air, updates are expected to usher in a new array of enhanced apps and capabilities.

Want better performance at the track? You'll be able to download a performance app can alter your car's fuel injection and ignition timing for increased horsepower and torque. Need better fuel economy for a long trip? A different app could tune your car for better efficiency.

Those changes would be done wirelessly, through the on-board infotainment system or smartphone, according to Hanno Lorenzl, Global Automotive & Transportation Center senior manager for EY, formerly consulting firm Ernst & Young. "It opens up a whole new avenue for (automakers) to participate in the usage of the vehicle over time," he said.

Performance and efficiency apps are just scratching the surface of an array of advanced features being researched thanks to new in-vehicle systems with Internet capabilities that enable over-the-air changes and software updates. Major automakers in coming years are expected to be capable of updating a vehicle over-the-air — from apps and GPS maps, to changing or fixing a vehicle's driving dynamics. IHS Automotive expects the number vehicles capable of over-the-air updates to substantially increase from a few million today to about 50 million globally.

"It's not if, but when," said Mark Boyadjis, IHS Automotive senior analyst and manager of infotainment and human-machine interfaces. A number of automakers already are capable of doing this, or have said they will offer over-the-air updates in the near future.

Tesla Motors Inc. utilizes over-the-air updates the most, analysts say. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall in January 2014 for nearly 30,000 Model S electric cars due to a possible overheating issue during charging, the California-based electric car company conducted an over-the-air software update that didn't require owners to bring cars to dealers.

"We've got the technology now to address a range of issues that used to require physically bringing the car to the dealership," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "This is a way to improve the recall completion rate for anything that doesn't need to be physically altered by the dealer."

Convenience is the ultimate goal for automakers, according to industry experts. But it's harder for larger companies, such as the Detroit automakers, to launch over-the-air updates because of the number of vehicles they sell. They may need to overhaul their systems to make sure they can handle millions of vehicles.

'Great way to reach out'

FCA US, formerly Chrysler Group, has had the capability of performing minor over-the-air updates, through its Uconnect infotainment system, since September 2012. The company as recently as December updated four 2015 models to include vehicle diagnostics capabilities that are monitored and sent to drivers.

"It's a great way to reach out to customers in a really convenient, unobtrusive way," said Al Amici, global head of Uconnect, during a phone interview with The Detroit News.

The company mainly uses wireless to update or install apps, but not GPS maps. It also does not send things such as advertising or non-prompted messages to the head units.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are expected this year to release new or updated in-vehicle infotainment systems that likely will utilize more over-the-air capabilities.

In December, Ford confirmed its new Sync 3 system would feature advanced over-the-air, app-based services. The automaker revealed partnerships with AccuWeather and Life360 as part of Sync AppLink, its network of more than 40 apps.

In the long term, the new system potentially could save Ford millions for updates. IHS Automotive estimates it cost the company $500 million to send out software updates for its previous MyFord and MyLincoln Touch customers in 2012.

GM does not remotely update its infotainment system at this time.

"At this point, that's something we're working on and testing, but there's a lot of policy and testing to be done," OnStar spokesman Stuart Fowle said in an email. "With OnStar 4G LTE, the technology is in place, but at this point we don't have a set plan to bring that to customers."

GM's OnStar has offered some remote automated emergency and diagnostic services since 1997. It escalated them to include over-the-air, turn-by-turn directions, remote auto-start from a smartphone and remote vehicle diagnostic updates. It also can lock, unlock or turn off a vehicle remotely.

Less work for dealers

If drivers don't have to bring their vehicle into the dealership for a fix, that means less work for the dealers, as well as less chance to offer another service.

Terry Burns, Michigan Automobile Dealers Association executive vice president, said dealers continue to work with automakers to adapt to new technologies such as over-the-air updating.

"There are a lot of new applications for technology and updating, but we are on the front lines of this every day," he said. "We know most of the time when there's repair work that needs to be done physically, there are few things that can be done remotely."

Amici said FCA US continues to encourage customers to go to dealers when appropriate because they "have the right technical competence and are the best opportunity to repair a car."

But there are privacy and safety concerns: What if a system malfunctions due to a hacker?

Millions of cars and trucks are vulnerable to hacking through wireless technologies that could jeopardize driver safety and privacy, a report released late Sunday says.

As vehicles grow increasingly connected through wireless networks and become more dependent on sophisticated electronic systems, Congress and federal regulators are worried about the potential for hackers to interfere with vehicle functions. The report overseen by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, says vehicles are vulnerable to hacking through wireless networks, smartphones, infotainment systems like OnStar — even a malicious CD popped into a car stereo.

Markey cited studies showing hackers can get into the controls of some popular vehicles, "causing them to suddenly accelerate, turn, kill the brakes, activate the horn, control the headlights, and modify the speedometer and gas gauge readings. Additional concerns came from the rise of navigation and other features that record and send location or driving history information."

The Association of Global Automakers (the trade association representing Toyota Motor Corp, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and other foreign automakers) and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (the group representing U.S. automakers, Toyota, Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and others) say they are working together to ensure driver data privacy.

There also are concerns over who owns data from the car. Is it the driver? Dealer? Car company? Those questions are likely why many automakers have announced partnerships with traditional non-auto technology companies and cellphone providers. It's a way to ensure the future of connected cars follows that of smartphones and handheld devices.

Automakers already are following what cellphone providers do by having owners voluntarily opt into a plan for updates.

"Safety and security is one of the main issues, but our sense is that gets solved sooner than later because of the commercial potential," said Lorenzl, of EY Global Automotive & Transportation Center.


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Detroit News Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.