What Are Over-the-Air Updates For Cars?


It’s hard to imagine a world where we march inside a store every time we update our phone or computer operating system. Yet, from fixing bugs to adding new functions, we’re accustomed to using over-the-air (OTA) technology to stay current with the latest features.


While most of us don’t yet associate OTA updates with our vehicles, we soon will. Manufacturers eager to save and make money are exploring ways to perform recalls and release upgrades with this technology.

Discover why automotive OTA updates are important, their advantages and potential drawbacks, and how they’ll change how you interact with your next vehicle.


What Are Automotive OTA Updates?

OTA updates are fixes and features delivered wirelessly to embedded devices.

For example, there are numerous ways to play music from your phone to your car stereo. However, a manufacturer wishes to offer this feature in its infotainment system. Code is sent via the cloud and then verified and downloaded by the vehicle’s telematics control unit (TCU). In some vehicles, this happens automatically; others require owners to scan for updates.

OTA updates can address the software, known as software over-the-air (SOTA), or the firmware, known as firmware-over-the-air (FOTA). Right now, SOTA updates are more common for vehicles than FOTA. If you’re wondering why, it helps to understand the differences between software and firmware.

Automotive FOTA updates typically address critical systems. On the other hand, SOTA updates are often used to fix non-safety items such as latency issues resulting in laggy touch screens.

Many vehicles lack the technological complexity to complete FOTA updates. FOTA relies on complex gateway chips communicating between the vehicle’s sensors, actuators, computers, equipment, and the cloud. This technology is trickling down into affordable vehicles but remains more prevalent in the high-end sector.

Infotainment systems rely on OTA updates for up-to-date maps, new apps, and improved interfaces. While not having the most current streaming services isn’t going to put your life in danger, OTA updates are useful beyond entertainment purposes. They can also be used to address safety recalls.

Over-the-Air Updates vs. Recalls: What’s the Difference?

The September 2022 Tesla window recall highlighted the murky area between what the government refers to as a recall and what a manufacturer considers a simple OTA update.

This confusion may be partly attributable to linguistics. The word “recall” connotes something moving. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites a meaning hailing back to the 16th century of “call back from a distance, to bring back by calling upon.” For example, in the case of a meat recall, the product is physically removed from shelves.

The murkiness between recalls and OTA updates is also rooted in our experiences. It used to be that recalls always required a visit to the dealership. Instead, vehicle owners are accustomed to receiving a letter, calling the service department, and, recently, waiting for parts or a solution to become available.

OTA updates are not a panacea that will eliminate the need to go to dealerships. Issues that require a physical component to be examined or replaced, such as GM’s recall of nearly 500,000 SUVs due to poorly installed rivets, will still require onsite repairs.

On the other hand, because embedded devices allow for remote fixes on an increasing number of issues, recalls that require dealership visits should drop substantially in the coming years. Tesla already handles most of its recalls via OTA updates instead of physical repairs.

Advantages of OTA Updates

When your vehicle has a problem, it’s stressful and inconvenient. One advantage of OTA updates is that they save time for consumers. Even if there’s a fancy coffee machine, no one wants to spend their day in the dealership’s service waiting area.

A second advantage is money. Everyone wants to know how to avoid overpaying for repairs and falling victim to a repair shop. OTA updates may lower repair costs for issues not covered by a recall or under the manufacturer’s warranty as they eliminate labor charges. That’s also good news for dealers facing a nationwide auto technician shortage.

OTA updates hold unique improvement opportunities for electric vehicles (EVs). For example, Audi announced an OTA update that could improve the range of the e-tron.

OTA connectivity will help data scientists to improve battery technology because it offers bidirectional connectivity. Manufacturers can send and receive information from EVs to improve their performance over time.

OTA technology also allows for real-time monitoring, which will appeal to any business that benefits from knowing where its drivers are at any time and how the vehicle is being used.

Besides commercial applications, this will be popular with parents who use apps to track their teen drivers. With notifications for speeding and harsh braking, these apps create a level of transparency that encourages more responsible driving.

OTA updates will synergize with the automotive’s industry push for subscription models. Even if the idea of paying monthly for your heated seats appalls you, OTA updates may allow for savings and flexibility in how we equip our vehicles in the near future.

Potential Drawbacks of OTA Updates

One drawback of any connected technology is the ambiguity surrounding how our data is used and shared. Our driving patterns provide rich information to both manufacturers and advertisers seeking to sell personalized products and services. While we may not object to this, there is the risk of having our data commandeered by malicious parties.

Even more concerning is the idea that an individual’s vehicle could be targeted via OTA technology. If you’ve seen “The Godfather,” recall [spoilers!] the scene where Michael Corleone’s car blows up in Sicily. While it’s unlikely OTA technology could be used in this manner, this macabre cybersecurity thought experiment underscores the need for ironclad protocols.

Another danger, one that we’ve already seen, is improperly executed updates. Just like an inept mechanic who doesn’t secure your lung nuts properly, an error in the code of an update, or an update that doesn’t deploy as intended, can have dire consequences.

A few Tesla owners have reported that OTA updates have bricked their vehicles. On the MachEForum, Ford owners expressed frustration as their MacheE OTA updates failed. These problems will have to be addressed before OTA vehicle updates become mainstream.

When Will We See OTA Vehicle Updates?

OTA technology is a complex ecosystem that includes original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), government officials, coders, cybersecurity specialists, parts suppliers, and vehicle owners. Modern vehicles contain millions of lines of code and hundreds of electronic control units (ECUs). It will require complex coordination to make widespread OTA technology safe and reliable.

Because OTA vehicle updates are new, it’s also important for manufacturers to provide education and training, both to dealers and vehicle owners. Just as with many other embedded devices, certain parameters must be met for an update to succeed. For example, some updates can’t or won’t happen while an application is running or if communication is lost. While rebooting your phone is irritating, it will not stop you from getting to an appointment or endanger your life.

The sheer number of industry players at legacy automakers is delaying the rollout of automotive OTA updates and software-defined vehicles (SVDs). However, Hyundai recently announced its following Tesla’s lead in adopting OTA technology as it welcomes what it calls the automotive “Software Age.”

The Future of OTA Updates

While OTA technology will require the cooperation of a medley of stakeholders and cybersecurity will be a concern for some, the technology offers an irresistible value proposition to say time and money.

A vehicle used to be a static machine. The features it had when you got it were the only features it was ever going to have. In the future, your car will get better over time. And as we tiptoe into an age of autonomous driving, vehicles will communicate with one another in real-time, and OTA updates will make for a safer and more entertaining driving experience.


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