Cars are traveling computers in which software controls key vehicle functions. With over 100 million lines of code, it is a challenge to keep the system up to date at all times and to implement new features. Regular security updates for firmware and software are absolutely essential. With over-the-air updates (OTA), vehicles no longer have to go into a garage for updates.
Automatic software updates over the internet have been standard for years for laptops, telephones, or TV devices. In the automotive industry though, they are still relatively rare. Vehicle owners are usually called into garages to implement updates. The objective, then, is to employ methods that use wireless interfaces like WLAN or mobile communications. 2012 saw the first over-the-air updates, which mostly concerned non-critical infotainment functions. Some OEMs now regularly carry out over-the-air updates. These are usually still updates of systems not critical to safety, such as navigation maps or sound system changes. Mobile software updates for safety systems or functions that are directly connected to driving are only now being slowly realized. In future it may be that, thanks to new features that the OEM implements using over-the-air updates, vehicles will no longer decline in value. A benefit for customers and suppliers.
Instead of having to return to the dealer every time an OEM identifies a problem or has to implement new features, OTA updates can be carried out virtually in the background without disturbing the vehicle’s owner. This may also improve vehicle safety, as some customers ignore even critical recall campaigns.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), at present in the U.S. only 62 percent of recalled cars are ever repaired – even after the owners have been notified several times. Over-the-air updates could resolve these problems and save millions of dollars in maintenance work. In addition, improvements and changes to a vehicle can be carried out, from adjusting the transmission to optimizing performance and fuel efficiency.
Back in 2017, Hurricane Irma, which struck the west coast of the U.S., demonstrated how automotive manufacturers can use over-the-air updates. Anyone wanting to escape the approaching hurricane in a Tesla could only travel some 320 kilometers in certain Tesla models with a fully charged battery. For that reason, Tesla temporarily increased battery capacity using an OTA update. This service is normally only available for a surcharge.
The trends towards software-controlled vehicle architecture as well as chargeable on-demand features mean that short-notice, large-scale, or targeted software updates and fixes are becoming increasingly important. Electronic control units within vehicles, including the infotainment system, are affected by this.
Updates for electronic control units mainly close security holes, improve performance, and update the infotainment system. This enhances comfort and personalized use. This not only results in cost savings but also the chance to earn money, as car owners can buy new, chargeable features via the OTA interface in an app store or simply activate them. Just as Tesla does with battery capacity or autopilots.
The cars of the future will distinguish themselves increasingly due to their software capabilities.
For OTA updates, a car needs either a SIM card or a WLAN network. Once a connection exists, an OTA manager launches the update process. An electronic control unit that is fitted with a mobile communications interface takes over the role of mediating between the backend and the devices within the car that are to be updated. It receives all software packages via the air interface and distributes them via CAN bus systems. In addition, the electronic control unit (gateway TCU (Telematics Control Unit)) controls and coordinates the entire process as the master device.
The transfer of the data packages must be protected, as third parties could otherwise access important vehicle features. This means that safety and security are key aspects for success. Alongside encryption of the transmission channel, and the secure identification and authorization of vehicles and their electronic control units, the protection of updates through package encryption and integrity checks plays a crucial role.
Electronic control units often have two partitions. A firmware update, for instance, is installed on one partition. Following successful completion, a switch from the partition with the old firmware to that with the new one takes place.
The update itself must happen as quickly as possible. If it is interrupted because a vehicle is being used again, the program must be able to continue with the update at the point it left off. To ensure more rapid uploading, the size of data packages should be as small as possible.
However, it may be that for a complete program switch, large quantities of data arise. Compressing data packages reduces the data volume for transmission. Delta updates, which swap changed components, are also feasible. Alternatively, only the program codes that were actually changed are transferred.
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