It’s a depressing thing when one of the world’s oldest automakers, a 20th-century bastion of manufacturing, proselytizes something as mundane as over-the-air (OTA) software updates. But that’s exactly where Ford finds itself, as revealed in an Automotive News interview with one of the company’s top engineers in the lead-up to the release of the Mustang Mach-E and 2021 F-150.
Between the ubiquity of assisted driving features and automakers’ continued push toward electrification, the worlds of cars and new technology are finally converging in the way we’ve long been told they would. It’s an exciting, transformative era to behold, but it’s also revealing how woefully behind the technological curve the industry’s established players can be.
In the AN interview, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer, Hau Thai-Tang, spoke of the importance wireless updates hold for cars as software integration deepens. The subtleties of computer code affect every aspect of the driver and passenger experience, from a car’s powertrain to its infotainment system, safety suite and beyond:
I think we now have the ability to make the vehicle physically better for the customer with these OTA updates, and that’s something that’s game-changing in terms of the business model.
Thai-Tang later says that the ability to change and improve vehicles through code updates after they’ve left the factory diminishes the need for midcycle model refreshes and could lengthen generational lifecycles, which seems logical enough.
Ford will use the Mach-E and new F-150 as the proving grounds for its Fully Networked Vehicle electrical architecture, which will let the company introduce features like its hands-free Active Drive Assist via OTA updates months after those cars initially hit showrooms. As Craig Schmatz, chief engineer of the F-150, recently told Muscle Cars & Trucks:
We have the hardware there for the Active Drive Assist, we’ll have the software by the summer. We’ll push it over the air. Even small things that aren’t on the truck today… Let’s say we had a new powertrain calibration and we found a new way to get a bit more fuel economy, we can push that. Or something that requires customers to go back (to the dealer), they don’t have to anymore… if they can actually push (to install the software update) then there’s no need to chase customers.
There’s something profoundly disappointing in a company of Ford’s size, scope and history only now processing the implications of software updates, a concept that’s been central to computing and consumer electronics for decades. But Ford is far from the only laggard; while some manufacturers have been a bit more proactive, they’re all scrambling to catch up to Tesla, which has been continually issuing new capabilities to existing cars using OTA updates since it introduced the Model S in 2012.
Loup Ventures, a venture capital firm, just published its OTA Report Card, evaluating the state of software updates from a number of prominent automakers, based on the company’s own projections as well as manufacturer’s stated plans. Unsurprisingly, Tesla finished at the top with an A grade; the second best-performer was BMW, with a C+. The firm says it found that “legacy automakers are 3 to 5 years from offering meaningful OTA updates.”
The above report card doesn’t show the full extent of legacy auto’s OTA shortcomings. Today, most automaker’s OTA updates improve a vehicle’s infotainment system (maps, Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth compatibility), which, in our view, does not add material value to a vehicle. On the other hand, Tesla’s OTA updates improve infotainment systems, along with range, autonomy features, braking/acceleration functions, and safety systems.
We believe most legacy automakers are 3-5 years from offering meaningful OTA updates. The reason is that OTA capability is just one piece of the puzzle. There must be important functions built into the car and controlled by software for OTAs to be valuable.
While I disagree with the assessment that updates to a car’s infotainment system aren’t or can’t be meaningful, the sad truth is that carmakers have rarely even gotten those right. Manufacturers have been embedding certain models with Wi-Fi, 3G and LTE radios for years; the groundwork to deliver something as basic as a front-end update for Ford Sync over the air, for example, has always been there. And even when it hasn’t, there’s almost always a USB port you can plug a flash drive into.
Still, even when the capability to issue updates technically exists, carmakers often balk. I’m sure we all have frustrating tales of botched software updates; my 2017 Fiesta ST, for example, has an update available for its Sync 3 system, though attempting to install it wirelessly or in plug-and-play fashion fails every single time. The reason? Turns out, the update’s file size exceeds the amount of available storage in the car.
I’m reminded of this story by the Verge from 2017, a time when automakers were deeply threatened by their customers’ preference for Apple and Google’s software on vehicle displays over their own. A group of manufacturers, including names like Toyota, Ford and Peugeot, started a coalition to introduce their own app platform via the SmartDeviceLink protocol, where they could oversee the user experience, ensure that their brands received prominence on screen and, least shockingly, take a cut of whatever revenue the apps generated. All because CarPlay and Android Auto ran better, looked nicer and were more familiar and intuitive to use than software any manufacturer had been able to produce at the time.
All this history is to highlight the point that carmakers have had an eternity to get serious about software and updates, first by cutting their teeth on the small stuff like touchscreen graphics before pulling off more complex challenges, like new drive modes and safety features.
But they didn’t. Instead, they dismissed how crucial software would become in the vehicles they’d later build. Some half-heartedly attempted to undermine great ideas like phone projection that were actually making their cars better, before doubling back later to cooperate with tech companies that really understood a thing or two about interface design. Today, a number of brands, from Peugeot to Nissan, Chrysler, GM and Volvo, either already rely on or plan to incorporate Android within their vehicles’ infotainment systems.
Really, the future that Ford envisions now should have arrived at least five years ago. Perhaps it might have, if the industry’s biggest players didn’t spurn new technology as an encroaching threat and realized sooner rather than later that the cars they build are new technology.