Mobile software for cars

Mobile software updates for cars

Most of a car’s functions are now controlled by software. Learn how over-the-air updates reduce costs and enable new business models.

Avoiding garage visits

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.

Over-the-air software updates

Different tire tracks at night in front of a skyline on which bright spots and icons are visible

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.

White paper: Software-defined vehicles and the role of OTA platforms

Discover the strategies employed by automotive software providers to harness the benefits of OTA platforms.

Improved recall rate

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.

T-Systems expertise for OTA updates

  • Development provision of a network-based, intelligent, OEM-independent solution for OTA updates that are integrated into existing products on the market
  • Provision of end-to-end update SLAs, including dynamic pricing
  • Additional services for OEMs and mobility providers

Cost savings and the provision of new features

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. 

Closing security holes quickly

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. 

Challenges and benefits of OTA

  • Trend toward single, central, powerful computers in vehicles
  • Software coming under increased focus in vehicle development, requires a change in perspective concerning vehicle features (software-defined vehicle/car)
  • As a result of e-cars and autonomous driving functions, the number of software updates will increase further
  • Increase in data volume and update frequency
  • OTA permits the extensive deployment of software more quickly
  • Garage costs fall significantly
  • New software-based, individually customizable services (e.g., navigation maps, Car2x) can be deployed more quickly via OTA

Over-the-air update from T-Systems

  • The OTA Update Delivery Network Controller (UDNC) is provided by T-Systems and installed by the OEM on the connectivity gateway module in the vehicle.
  • The UDNC aggregates all relevant information for specification of the update strategy (e.g., network QoS, channels, vehicle location, route).
  • The UDNC uses the intelligence of the connectivity networks to carry out update execution as cost-effectively and with as much SLA compliance as possible.
  • The UDNC defines the download instructions centrally and transfers them to the UDNC client.
  • The UDNC client manages and carries out the download and transfers it to the update manager in the vehicle.
  • SLAs for update provision enable dynamic pricing, including for the connectivity part, to create a genuine technical end-to-end solution.
  • Updates take place based on classification, e.g., safety, security, feature, optional, etc.
  • Update decisions are also made on the basis of network conditions (overloading, channel, off/on peak, etc.).

Updates via SIM card or WLAN

Bird’s-eye view of a road in a city on which cars are traveling, surrounded by network icons.

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.

Protecting against abuse during transmission

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.

Compressing data for updates

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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