Connected cars update like smartphones

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Austin, Texas — Industry disruptor and electric automaker Tesla has shaken up the auto world with sleek, high-performance chariots like the Model S that can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in under three seconds. The Silicon Valley upstart’s influence is seen in everything from the 200-mile-range Chevy Bolt to the large console tablet of Volvo’s XC90.

Less obvious is a new generation of connected autos that Tesla regularly updates with over-the-air upgrades. It is a development that is making cars more like computers and smartphones — and may ultimately change the way auto accessories are sold.

Using over-the-air updates, Tesla has for years updated its vehicles with everything from Google Maps software to self-driving capability. This winter, General Motors gets in the game with its “Marketplace” upgrade, the so-called “connected commerce” software allowing drivers in the 2018 Buick Regal — and other vehicles — to order chicken wings and reserve a restaurant table from their car’s console screen.

Balancing technical progress with dealer and security concerns, GM’s foray into connected technology is modest compared to Tesla’s updates. But over-the-air updates are on track to become commonplace in automakers from BMW to Subaru.

“Our Model S was still red when it completed its 40,000-mile tour of duty, but in many ways, it was as if we were living with a different car,” wrote Car and Driver in April after putting a Tesla Model S through its long-term test regimen.

“Nineteen months (after taking delivery), the car... could steer itself down the highway, its two electric motors were now understood to make a combined 463 horsepower, and the 17-inch touchscreen, twice upgraded by software updates, had learned to plot the necessary high-speed-charging breaks on long-distance routes.”

As the digital revolution drives more electronics to cars, automakers plan to upgrade their products long after purchase — just like smartphone makers.

“It really changes the way the service field works in general,” says Colin Bird, senior analyst for automotive software at IHS Automotive. “We see a $7 billion opportunity for automakers by 2024 to enhance vehicles on the road.”

Tesla’s ambitious updating of vehicles from infotainment to battery drivetrains is driven in part by its heavy use of electronic systems — unlike most cars on the road that rely on transmission shift cables and internal-combustion engines. But Tesla is also pushing the envelope as a small-volume automaker with less legal exposure.

Beta-testing its self-driving updates with consumers, say analysts, is a risk that more-established automakers are more cautious to embrace with millions of products on the road.

“General Motors, for example, has every need to be cautious as it rolls out over-the-air updates. Because they are big and can ill-afford another ignition-switch failure,” says IHS auto analyst Stephanie Brinley, referring to the scandal that rocked GM in 2014 and led to hundreds of millions in federal fines and lawsuit payouts. “Tesla doesn’t know how bad it can be until you go through it.”

Unlike Tesla’s cannonball into the connectivity waters, GM — and other carmakers — are just putting their toe in first.

Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota, Mercedes, Volvo, Subaru, Jaguar-Land Rover, Fiat Chrysler, Nissan, and Ford have all been making updates to console navigation software or apps. Ford, for example, is updating cars on the road with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps so phones can take over console screens.

In Austin this week, the Buick Regal sedan (which sports a Model S-inspired hatchback) showed off the Marketplace app — an in-car extension of popular smartphone apps available from stores. Pairing the app with store accounts, drivers can easily order, say, doughnut and coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts while driving — then arrive at the store and pick up the prepaid order.

GM is updating every 2017-18 model from all its brands — some 2 million vehicles total — with Marketplace.

Testing the feature here, the app simplified the ordering process compared to distracting, multiscreen phone apps — though its connectivity was spotty. Ordering doughnuts no doubt pales compared to Tesla’s recent, over-the-air update called “Summon” which allows drivers to remotely call their cars out of a tight parking spaces.

But Bird predicts similar, major feature updates “are a harbinger of what other automakers will do.”

He says cars can increasingly come to makers on schedule with less, time-consuming validation of some features. Tesla’s Model 3, for example, will get over-the-air updates for FM radio. GM’s Marketplace may be free — but in the future, automakers might charge for new accessories just as Tesla charges $5,000 for its over-the-air, semi-self-driving Autopilot feature.

IHS’s Brinley says that over-the-air updates must also overcome dealer resistance. “That will be an issue,” she says, “because bringing cars into the shop for service is where dealers make a lot of revenue.”

Add disruption of Michigan franchise law-mandated dealer networks to Tesla’s list as it fights to bypass dealers and sell its vehicles directly to customers.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.