Over-the-Air Updates with Electric Vehicles

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Overview of OTA Updates

Connected Vehicles with OTA Update Capability[1]

Over-the-air (OTA) updates are a technology used by businesses, such as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), to update smart devices wirelessly[2]. Using OTA technology to update smart devices such as computers, laptops, mobile devices and household smart appliances has been widely adopted today, with the majority of device updates being performed remotely through OTA technology. In recent years, OTA updates have been gaining popularity in many other industries, including the automotive, machinery, aviation sectors. Currently, the automotive industry is at the forefront of OTA update technology adoption[3]. This wiki will summarize the latest development of OTA updates in the automobile industry.

Delivery of Vehicle OTA Updates

A vehicle receives OTA updates in the same way a cell phone receives its phone updates. During an OTA update, a wireless data pathway is created between the cloud server and the vehicle, allowing for data transfer[4]. Upon connection establishment, critical features and updates are distributed to the vehicle through the wireless data pathway and then installed on the vehicle. The data transferred in this process could include any, or a combination of upgrades on vehicle software, firmware, system patches and configuration settings[5].

Business Application of Vehicle OTA Updates

Vehicle components impacted

With full access to in-vehicle communication networks, vehicle over-the-air update technology can upgrade a vehicle’s functionalities through software updates on the embedded software already installed on the vehicle's Electronic Control Units (ECUs). In short, all software components of a connected vehicle may be impacted by OTA updates. Below is a list of examples:

  • Vehicle firmware, which helps with vehicle performance improvements.
  • Control of physical parts, such as break modulation control and vehicle suspension control. A famous example is Tesla using an OTA update to revise their braking algorithm on the vehicle immediately after negative media review in 2018[6].
  • Instrument cluster, which is the panel in front of the driver used to display vehicle information and condition while driving. Examples include drive speed, mileage, fuel level, vehicle range available and indicator lights that provide warnings, such as brake lights, to inform the driver on the vehicle’s condition.
3 types of vehicles impacted by OTA updates
  • Infotainment system, which is an in-vehicle system that provides entertainment and information on the vehicle[7]. Updates on the infotainment system would usually include addition of new functionalities or interface improvements to enhance user experience.
  • Navigation system, which includes updates that involve improving route calculation, map updates, and more accurate traffic predictions[8].

Types of vehicles being impacted

OTA updates are currently available on passenger cars, commercial vehicles and agriculture vehicles.

  • Passenger cars are personal vehicles designed to carry people to their destination, including household sedans, SUVs, and sports cars.
  • Commercial vehicles are primarily heavy trucks used for transporting purposes, such as 16-wheeler trucks.
  • Agriculture vehicles are vehicles used for farming purposes such as tractors, harvesters and cultivators.

History of Vehicle OTA Updates

OTA History, Timeline

Before 2012, with No OTA Enabled Vehicles

Prior to the concept of OTA updates, many vehicle owners chose not to update software components of their vehicles, which may be associated with the complicated process of getting a vehicle updated. Traditionally, when a manufacturer comes up with updates for vehicles, whether a navigation or firmware update, they will send the update to their dealerships. If a car owner wants to run an update on their car, they need to book an appointment with the local dealership and leave the car with the dealership. During this period of time, vehicle owners have to arrange an alternative form of transportation as they don’t have access to their car. Another option is to rent a car or ask for a courtesy vehicle from the dealership. As a whole, this can be a tedious process that causes inconvenience for car owners.

After 2012, with Vehicle OTA Updates

With over-the-air technology, updating a vehicle becomes much easier for both manufacturers and vehicle owners. Manufacturers store their updates in their data server in the cloud. As a result, the vehicle owners can choose a time that is convenient for them to install the update while they are connected to a Wi-Fi signal. The vehicle can run the update from the comfort of the owner’s home, which is a process that is significantly easier, more convenient, and less time consuming.

Vehicle Update History

OTA Update Technical Requirements

There are four main technical requirements that contribute to the successful implementation of OTA updates in vehicles. All four components must be present, as the absence of any component can lead to the vehicle being unable to update through OTA technology.

Connected Vehicle

In order for a vehicle to utilize OTA updates, it will need to have internet capabilities and also qualify as a connected vehicle, which is an application of Internet of Things (IoT) devices[9]. The vehicle needs to be designed to allow for a communication network that integrates all of the in-vehicle ECUs and sensors, while supporting network connection capabilities. In other words, the vehicle needs to be a smart vehicle and able to connect to the internet. Older vehicle models cannot benefit from OTA technology as they do not have the required hardware to support it.


An OTA update also requires a network connection. This refers to an internet connection via various radio standards, with the most popular options being cellular networks, such as 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi[10]. The vehicle must be located in an area with internet coverage to communicate with the server.

Cloud Server

A cloud server is a virtual server running in a cloud environment, where data constantly travels in both directions to allow for data access and data storage upon request. Vehicle update packages are stored on the cloud server once an OEM releases them. Vehicles then send data to the server to request downloads and provide feedback, and then receive data from the server to allow for system updates.

OTA Platform

The final technical requirement for successful vehicle OTA update implementation is an OTA platform, which plays a fundamental role in successfully delivering updates from the OEM to the vehicle. An OTA platform runs in the back end, similar to a device management system, to connect vehicles on the road to their manufacturers. Through an OTA platform, vehicles can request and receive updates created by the manufacturer.

OTA Solutions & Providers

OTA Solutions

Many tech firms today specialize in the development, monitoring and maintenance of the network infrastructure and platform to effectively distribute software updates from OEMs to vehicles on the road[11]. These tech firms offer the OTA platform and technical support to the manufacturer in order to help them deploy vehicle software updates. This permits manufacturers to effectively prioritize and allocate their vehicle design and development resources. Many car manufacturers, such as GM, Volvo and Daimler, have partnered with OTA providers to receive complete support with OTA[12]. Complete support means that no OTA development is completed by the manufacturer themselves. Other manufacturers prefer partial support from OTA providers, as they have chosen to develop their own OTA platform in-house. For instance, John Deere, an OEM who specializes in producing agriculture vehicles like tractors, and Tesla, a major electric vehicle company both develop their own OTA platforms in-house [13].

Example of major OTA providers as of 2020

Major OTA Providers

Referring to industry reports and work created by several consulting groups, we have identified a comprehensive list of major vehicle OTA technology providers[14][15]:

  • Continental AG
  • Robert Bosch GmbH
  • Harman International
  • Garmin Ltd.
  • NXP Semiconductors N.V.
  • Verizon Communications, Inc.
  • Infineon Technologies AG
  • NVIDIA Corporation
  • Qualcomm Inc.
  • Airbiquity Inc.
  • Movimento Inc.
  • GNX (by BlackBerry)

New Features Unlocked by Vehicle OTA Updates

With a wireless data pathway built between the cloud server and vehicles, OTA update technology communicates with the server to unlock and allow access to new features and use cases. This can bring revolutionary changes to business models within the automotive industry and change how consumers perceive, purchase, and use their vehicles. Some key features that come from OTA updates are quicker updates, subscription based services, and data collection and live diagnostics.

Quicker Updates

OTA technology makes updates readily available for download and installation the moment they are released by the manufacturer to the vehicle fleet.

Subscription Based Services

OTA technology will allow OEMs to sell vehicle features and services after the vehicle has been sold and delivered to the owner, making for a continually upgradable vehicle.

Data and Diagnostics

With OTA technology, vehicles can remain in constant communication with OEM servers and networks to monitor and analyze vehicle performance data. This helps to ensure all vehicle fleets are operating at optimal performance levels.

Business Impacts

There are various business impacts, primarily advantageous, that come from adopting OTA technology and many car manufacturers are adopting the technology as a result . Tesla, who is certainly in the lead, has proven that enabling OTA updates in vehicles is a revolutionary path towards a more connected and valuable machine to get us where we are going. Solely mechanical vehicles are becoming relics as the vehicle industry is evolving and becoming increasingly computerized. OEMs have been slow to adopt over-the-air technology for more advanced firmware components, but the automotive industry is ever evolving. With the electric vehicle (EV) market encroaching its presence over combustion engines, these OEMs are embracing the added value that OTA brings.

To get a sense of how widely the vehicle industry is adopting OTA technology into their fleets, below are examples of common car and commercial trucking brands across North America that have announced their implementation of OTA firmware and software updates:

  • Ford: In 2019, Ford announced that the new 2020 lineup of Ford vehicles would be OTA enabled, allowing for software updates to start rolling out to its equipped fleet of vehicles[16]. Along with a 2020 OTA equipped vehicle fleet, Ford will also be introducing their first EV market contenders in the 2021 Mustang Mach E and 2022 Electric Ford F-150[17].
  • GM: By 2023, most vehicles within GM’s fleet will be equipped with a new robust digital nervous system capable of running 4.5 terabytes of data every hour[18]. The new system has been through five years of research and development in order to bring GM vehicles up to the standard that Tesla has set, while also equipping the vehicles with the necessary computing power to expand into computer assisted and fully autonomous driving[19].
  • Mercedes: In June 2020, Mercedes announced its partnership with NVDIA, a prominent chipmaker in the market, to collaboratively develop a new software-based architecture that will allow OTA updates on the entire line of next generation Mercedes Benz vehicles[20]. Their plan is to roll out the new software to their 2024 lineup which will provide them with the same OTA capabilities as Tesla. Mercedes is planning to integrate some of the new features on a subscription basis, which means all vehicles will need to be equipped with the necessary base software and physical parts in order to accommodate every option they offer.
  • BMW: All BMW vehicles with Operating System 7.0 were upgraded to receive OTA updates in July, 2020[21]. With the new software update, BMW is also going to take advantage of subscription-based services and features such as their active driving assistant, allowing owners to trial the feature before making the decision to purchase.
  • Volkswagen: Volkswagen (VW) was one of the first major car manufacturers to announce that they would be taking advantage of OTA updates and following in Tesla’s footsteps back in late 2017; however, VW won’t see OTA-enabled vehicle lines until they release their new I.D. EV fleet in 2022[22]. VW is currently running a real world test of their I.D. fleet with 150 preliminary models being used by employees[23].

One of the first vehicle manufacturing industries to implement OTA updates after Tesla pioneered the technology in cars was the commercial trucking industry. Modern commercial trucks are advanced machines with many sensors and telemetry that use OTA technology to run real time diagnostics and keep their fleets running efficiently[24]. Mack trucks started offering OTA updates in October 2017 through their ‘Mack Over The Air’ service[25]. In 2018, both Volvo and Freightliner Cascadia trucks introduced OTA updates to their fleets[26]. Volvo uses an OTA package that allows OTA updates on a subscription basis, giving them 50 updates per year that can be rolled out to their entire fleet[27]. Cascadia uses a similar system and will soon see firmware updates being rolled out to their trucks in an undisclosed timeframe[28].

Business Advantages

OTA not only adds value to vehicle fleets, it opens new revenue streams through the following methods: new profit ventures, increasing data collection and diagnostics, and circumventing the dealership. Advantages of OTA updates in commercial fleets will also be discussed.

New Profit Ventures

Over the air updates offer a new profit venture for vehicle manufacturers through subscription-based features. Subscribing to digital services in everyday life has been around for a while but with OTA technology, it is beginning to see its debut within the vehicle industry. We have grown accustomed to buying vehicles with baseline features and then paying for additional feature packages such as air conditioning or heated seats. Certain manufacturers, such as BMW[29] and Mercedes[30], have indicated that their OTA equipped vehicles will offer features like assisted driving or sport mode simply by opting in to the subscription at any point of time during one’s ownership of the vehicle. To illustrate how the manufacturer can benefit from subscription-based features, observe the following hypothetical scenario:


Average BMW ownership: 6.2 years[31]

Current FSD Tesla Autopilot Cost at time of writing: $11,000 CAD[32]

A BMW owner, on average, owns their car for just over 6 years. Using Tesla’s autopilot as a benchmark for price, an owner can reasonably expect that a full self-driving (FSD) autopilot feature would cost around $11,000 if purchased outright. For simplicity, let us use $125/month, $9000 over 6 years, as a subscription price. This results in a 20% rate of savings for the average BMW owner. If a new customer buys a new BMW with the intent of upgrading to a new model after 6 years, it is advantageous for the customer to subscribe to FSD autopilot. Suppose upon resale, a new owner decides to keep the car indefinitely and chooses to pay for the autopilot feature outright. For BMW, selling autopilot as both a subscription option and a single time purchase package has resulted in $18,000 from one vehicle. Subscription features allow for continuous revenue over the lifetime of a vehicle.

Even though this hypothetical example is basic, it shows the potential new revenue streams that OTA technology creates.

Equipping every vehicle with the necessary hardware to allow for feature subscriptions does not come without its costs. The manufacturer must bear the cost of ensuring every feature they offer is built into their entire fleet, which can appear to be a large burden especially if most customers do not ever subscribe or pay for the features and functions outright[33]. While the added hardware costs to the manufacturing process do not appear profitable, they do simplify things[34]. Rather than producing several different models of vehicles with varying levels of hardware and features, manufacturers only have to produce one or two options for a particular model. The number of models they produce could be reduced since every vehicle will have predominantly the same hardware. Tesla is a good example of this, as they currently only produce four different models of cars[35], each with the same technical capabilities, where battery range is the only significant hardware option to choose from. Since the manufacturers would have a simplified inventory of parts going into vehicles, this would bring higher order volumes which typically results in lower costs[36].

Data Collection and Diagnostics

Vehicles are increasingly being equipped with various sensors, telematics and analytical tools that can constantly collect live usage and performance data while owners drive and use their vehicle[37]. The data can then be fed back to the OEM which allows for the entire fleet of vehicles to learn from one another. By collecting continuous live driving data, OEMs can run diagnostics and analytics to narrow down problems before they occur[38]. The ability for a company to address progressive issues with data analytics and send out a patch to the firmware or software of their entire fleet translates to significant cost savings. As of 2016, software was to blame for 15% of all car recalls[39], which will likely increase with time as the industry is predicted to have 203 million vehicles with OTA capabilities by 2022[40]. Preventative maintenance sent out over the airwaves will help to reduce the amount of software related recalls and operational costs for dealerships that have to perform the maintenance[41], saving the industry billions of dollars. Of course, many recall related issues are mechanical, but with the recent surge in the EV market and vehicles becoming far more technologically advanced, technical issues will inevitably account for a larger fraction of vehicle maintenance. Tesla has already shown that they can solve problems and tweak the settings of their entire fleet so they perform better and more efficiently all while the owners’ cars are parked in their driveways.

Circumventing the Dealership

Before OTA technology was introduced to the vehicle industry, owners had to bring their car into the dealership to have them perform an update. Now, with OTA, as previously mentioned, OEMs are able to circumvent the need for those dealership appointments by sending the update to their fleets and allowing the owner to download and install the update on their own time; this takes approximately 30 minutes[42]. The benefits to this are that vehicle owners are sent the updates, sometimes crucial for safety reasons, as soon as they are made available by the OEMs firmware and software teams rather than having those teams contact each owner individually. This also allows OEMs to reach the resale owners of their vehicles, whom they may not have any contact information on. In the case of resale vehicles, a secondary or even third owner of the vehicle may only hear about an important or crucial firmware or software update once they have brought their vehicle into the dealership for servicing. With OTA updates, these resale owners can be notified of such updates through the vehicle infotainment system. Mechanical issues that may lead to a recall can also be delivered to owners the same way, thus helping car manufacturers ensure their fleet of vehicles is up to date. As OTA updates can be sent out and implemented relatively quickly, the speed at which these updates can resolve issues in vehicles will drastically improve. This will help OEMs reduce the amount of time and money spent updating vehicle software at the dealerships.

Though OTA technology allows rolling updates to be released to the market quickly, certain companies are already working on having OTA updates installed in vehicles in real time, eliminating the need to park and wait for the vehicle update to complete. The company JFrog is working on just that, enabling real-time updates[43]. By using a driving simulator, their developers are able to change the code of the simulated environment synchronously while the car is being virtually driven. While most updates are not critical to the safety and performance of the vehicle, it is inevitable that vehicles will encounter software or firmware glitches during use. As networks improve and become faster with 5G, vehicles will have access to a connected network 100% of the time. This means vehicle issues could be diagnosed and resolved without the vehicle ever having to be parked and connected to Wi-Fi. Relating back to the commercial trucking industry, less downtime equates to less money wasted on maintenance.

Benefits to Commercial Fleets

The most significant benefit to using OTA updates on commercial fleets has to do with time and cost savings. Before OTA, trucks had to book appointments with shops and have the updates installed. While this was often scheduled with other maintenance to save on downtime, updates can cost as much as $100. Combined with an average cost of $1000 in downtime[44], fleets of thousands of trucks, and updates requiring upwards of an entire day, OTA updates present huge cost savings to trucking companies.

Software Support

With the support of over-the-air updates, which help keep vehicles relevant and up to date, Tesla’s goal is to have a vehicle that will last users a lifetime.[45] To help achieve this goal, Tesla is set to utilize the new lithium-iron-phosphate battery technology which is said to be a “million-mile” battery.[46] This will significantly improve EV lifespan, increase range and reduce costs for consumers.[47] Though battery technology looks like it will stand the test of time, concerns about the longevity of vehicle hardware and technical components is brought into question.

eMMC chip of 'bricked' Tesla[48]

Tesla vehicles have been experiencing bricking of the display counsel,[49] which means the car center display screen goes dark, accessories become inaccessible, and the car’s ability to charge may even become disabled. Essentially, bricking makes the car functionally useless. Bricking is caused by the embedded Multimedia Controller (eMMC) on the MCUv1 units in older generation Teslas with older hardware. These MCUv1 units log data via flash and with Tesla continuously writing new logs to the flash drives, they burn out. Flash memory can only handle a certain number of write cycles, within the tens of thousands, thus Tesla’s new logs cause them to burn out before they should need to be replaced. The amount of write cycles being performed is excessive[50] and car owners are noticing that these flash chips tend to fail near the time of the vehicle warranty being expired. This leaves car owners looking for a replacement chip for their car. While newer Tesla models use a larger chip and updated MCUv2 unit which is more robust and lasts longer, an obvious question arises – is this being done on purpose? Though Tesla wants their customers to own their vehicles for years on end, only time will tell if other manufacturers will follow suit and not build in inefficient components in order to force replacement.

Tesla, however, claims they have a goal of making their cars ‘future proof’ [51]through the use of sensors and hardware that can be updated through OTA thus extending the car’s longevity. With this being said, it is still unknown how long the hardware will last because we are currently using the latest technology. Moore’s law, which states that the capacity of a computer chip doubles every 18 months, would seem to negate this; however, technology is progressing to a point where Moore’s law is coming to an end, according to industry experts.[52] Currently, it is unable to be determined with certainty what will drive computing power forward once Moore’s law does come to an end and chips are incapable of advancing any further. Until this occurs, it is so far good news for vehicle software longevity as the gradual reduced speed of computer chip progression means we won’t have to fear that technology will be outdated too fast.

Customer Advantages

The primary customer impacts resulting from OTA updates include flexible choices, added convenience and extended vehicle lifespan.

Flexible Choices

As indicated previously, subscription services using OTA technology allows consumers to add or remove services even after the purchase of their vehicle. This offers additional flexibility in terms of the features users want in their car as they do not have to determine all their desired vehicle features at the time of purchase. One company starting to offer pay-as-you-go features is BMW. They are planning on ‘selling’ customers features only when they desire to use them [53]- this includes heated seats and steering wheel features. BMW is even offering the option of purchasing a new engine sound if yours does not meet your desired taste. In a nutshell, consumers will pay for new features or packages through updates, which are actually quite comparable to today’s video games, where add-on features are purchased rather than being released with the original game, or in this case, the vehicle. Further, users are able to ‘log in’ and ‘log out’ of features they would only like for a temporary basis, or allow for a grace or trial period of certain items.[54]

Added Convenience

While the added convenience of OTA updates circumventing the need for dealership appointments is broken down in more detail in the ‘Business Advantages’ section, it is still important to note the advantage this provides for the customer too. Customers benefit from the convenience of simply not having to take their vehicles into the dealer and can perform any necessary updates while their vehicle is parked in the driveway or at work and connected to a Wi-Fi source. This will help to also decrease vehicle owner dependency on the car dealership service station. [55]This is especially important in regards to recalls. [56]According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 62% of recalled cars ever get repaired. OTA updates could eliminate many of these compliance problems and keep both the customer and society safer with fewer vehicles with defects on the road.

Vehicle Lifespan

With OTA updates, consumers will constantly receive new features and security updates for their vehicle. This extends the vehicle’s lifespan and allows owners to use their cars for longer periods of time. For example, The average ownership of a BMW, which many consider as a higher class of car, is 6.2 years and Audi has an average of only 5.1 years. [57]This illustrates the short term aspect of vehicles without the option for real time OTA updates. Combine these updates with the intro of new technologies like Tesla’s ‘million mile battery’ and consumers could have the ability to keep their vehicles longer without having the value plummet over time. The industry may even start seeing vehicles appreciating in value... at least according to Elon Musk for Tesla vehicles.[58]

Risks & Disadvantages

There are three categories of risks that will be explained: ethical challenges; usability and emergency situations; and safety and security. These must be mitigated by OEMs in order to avoid the disadvantages that come with OTA updates.

Ethical Challenges

Car manufacturers are currently facing, and will continue to face, ethical challenges surrounding car ownership, forced updates and updating responsibility. Car ownership and forced updates are directly related - if car companies are able to force updates through OTA into vehicles without the owner’s consent, this demonstrates that owners do not have full control over their car. This is further related to the question of who bears the responsibility of ensuring the vehicle is up to date – the owner or the manufacturer?

Car Ownership

When purchasing a vehicle, consumers generally expect to have complete control over current car features, adding additional features, the exterior and interior appearance of their car and more. While the appearance of cars remains entirely in the hands of customers, with the increase in OTA updates in vehicles, car ownership is being questioned.

With OTA updates, car companies have the ability to add and remove features in vehicles even after they are purchased, which makes it difficult to say that the owner owns their vehicle entirely. An example of this is John Deere where an article was released stating that when a tractor is purchased, the owner receives the “licence for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” [59]This essentially states that the owner is purchasing a licencing right rather than the vehicle itself. Based on this statement, ownership of the car is put into question along with the power and capabilities of car companies through OTA updates. This concept is related to the following section regarding forced updates.

Forced Updates

With OTA updates, car manufacturers have the capability of updating car systems, adding and removing features and impacting vehicle functionality without permission from the car owner. This conflicts with a security feature of updates which is ensuring that users authorize updates before they take place to ensure the safety and security of data and car functionality when updating.[60] There are two cases involving Tesla that highlight the ethical challenges that come with forced OTA updates.

  1. Tesla set a deadline for owners to update vehicles; otherwise, an update would automatically be installed for them. [61]
  2. Tesla removed the autopilot and self-driving features of a vehicle through an OTA update, claiming that these features were not paid for by the user. [62]
Tesla forces updates[63]

The first case regarding forcing an update brings to light numerous challenges for OEMs and owners. Many Tesla owners were delaying or refusing to update their vehicles for a variety of reasons; however, Tesla released a notification through the vehicle stating the network was enhancing its security and if the car was not updated, owners would lose certain car features and an update would be automatically installed for them. Features being eliminated include voice commands, content streaming and other connectivity-related features. Unlike the John Deere example stated previously, this forced Tesla update takes the power away from vehicle owners entirely and raises concerns. Owners are likely wondering what information and power OEMs have over their vehicle in cases like these.

The second case occurred in November 2019 where Tesla removed the previously stated features from a used Model S. The autopilot and self-driving features were valued at approximately $8000 USD, and the owner of the vehicle purchased the car from a third party knowing those features were included. [64]The two features that were removed were significant and had a large impact on the functionality of the car. Realistically, they are some of the most attractive reasons for purchasing a Tesla, yet they were taken away without the owner’s permission. This brings to light the issue of do you really own your car, based on how much control these manufacturers have over the vehicle even after it is sold.

As stated, OTA updates can impact the features, security, and functionality of the vehicles. If car companies are able to alter these features freely, as seen in these two cases, can car owners truly say that they own their vehicles? A question stemming from this is if companies should be capable and permitted to force updates upon users. This should depend on the nature of the update and the features impacted by the update. For example, if the update alters a critical feature, such as improving responsiveness of brakes,[65]it is something that car manufacturers should be able to force onto users as this would protect not only those in the vehicle but others on the road as well. However, if a car manufacturer is forcing an update that would impact a non-critical feature, such as the entertainment system of the car, manufacturers should not be able to proceed with such updates without the owner’s permission.

Updating Responsibility

Almost everyone has a phone, computer or other electronic device that needs to be updated every once in a while. Users, however, often delay or forget about updating their devices. Now, with vehicles capable of OTA updates, users have another form of technology they need to worry about when it comes to updating software. Compared to cell phones and laptops, delaying or resisting vehicle updates has a significantly increased risk as people’s lives can be impacted. With personal devices, users often face the burden of ensuring their device is up to date. Should owners continue to be liable for OTA updates in their vehicles or should the liability shift to car manufacturers? This is an especially important factor to consider in the situation that an update is sent out and an accident relating to that update occurs.

Additional Ethical Challenges

Two additional ethical factors car manufacturers need to consider are surrounding older vehicle eligibility for updates and update capabilities once a car has been worked on by a third party or repair shop. In terms of older vehicles, cars often have a lifespan of eight years, however, with OTA updates the longevity of vehicles is expected to increase.[66] Will car companies continue to update vehicles that are purchased in the future with OTA updates? This is still very uncertain as OTA updates in vehicles is a new technology but looking at Tesla’s ‘one car for life’ mentality,[67] car companies are likely going to be required to continue updating older vehicles as well. In terms of cars that have been worked on by a party that is not the original manufacturer, car companies will need to mitigate this risk to ensure that updates that are crucial to the functionality of the car continue to be accessible while also ensuring that updates are only being sent out by the manufacturers themselves. With this, car companies will also need to ensure that third parties are unable to alter aspects of the vehicle relating to updates.

Usability Risk

According to Tesla, their vehicles cannot be driven once an update has started.[68] Typically, software updates take 30 minutes to complete on average.[69] During this period of time, there is no way to drive that vehicle because owners cannot cancel a software update once it begins.[70] As a vehicle owner, this could be frustrating and sometimes even life threatening during an emergency. To mitigate such risk, Tesla and luxury car company, Jaguar, pushed an update that enables car owners to schedule the time when they would like to update their vehicle. [71]This means that updates only occur when the owner desires, unless the OEM forces an update. While this is much more convenient for vehicle owners, this may pose a risk if the vehicle is not updated. This is tied back into the question of who is liable if a vehicle is not updated but an accident relating to the update occurs?

Failed Updates

It can be detrimental and deadly when an update crashes a vehicle carrying occupants. The following are two real life examples of small update failures. In February 2018, SiriusXM pushed an update that forced Chrysler’s Fiat vehicles’ large touch screens to restart every 30 to 45 seconds. Car owners could not access the audio system, navigation, backup camera and some climate-control features. Similarly, in 2016, some 2014 to 2016 Lexus vehicles received an OTA update that rendered their infotainment and navigation systems useless, requiring a trip to the dealer for repair.[72]

Imagine if this were to happen to Tesla or any other car company that is capable of updating core driving functionalities over-the-air. In any case, a failed update has the possibility of leading to devastating outcomes. Failed updates put people’s lives at risk, this includes both the drivers, passengers and others on the road whether it be other vehicles or pedestrians. As well, due to the nature of OTA updates in vehicles, an additional risk is that failure can impact millions of people as the updates are to be spanned across a large fleet of vehicles simultaneously. As stated before, to mitigate such risks, manufacturers should allow cars to fall back onto the previous stable version of the software system.

Another risk is if the internet connection fails or cuts out during the update, or if the update fails overall. As OTA updates in the auto industry are relatively new, effects of this have not been fully realized but this is why it is important to ensure the vehicles revert to the previous version of car software in the case that anything goes wrong.[73]

Safety and Security

Safety and security risks are one of the most significant risks that come with OTA updates. Safety risks refer to the functionality of the vehicle while security risks impact the data being transferred during the update. As mentioned earlier, there are many benefits of enabling OTA updates in vehicles, however, when software within the vehicle and connections to the vehicle increase, so does the likelihood of software bugs, security breaches, IP theft and compromised safety. Remote updates create potential opportunities for hackers to intercept and replace legit software with malware that could affect the vehicles performance.[74]

With the increased use of cloud-based services and the shift towards OTA updates, the cloud brings more incentive for hackers to compromise consumer databases. This impacts data security and can also potentially impact the functionality of vehicles given the nature of OTA updates.

The potential impact of these vulnerabilities reaches beyond single vehicles and vehicle owners, as a large hack has the ability to compromise entire fleets of vehicles.[75] While less critical hacking attempts could hinder or modify infotainment systems or present incorrect positional information, the primary concern is that a breach could present a significant safety risk.[76] There is also the likelihood that private and personal information might be compromised. The data path from vehicle sensor to data center presents many opportunities for intrusions such as man-in-the-middle attacks, furthering the importance that steps be taken to minimize the risks.[77]


Traditional automotive OEMs push out a handful of car updates or servicing requirements per year while Tesla has deployed almost 400 OTA updates to their vehicles in just 6 years. As mentioned in the ‘Business Application of Vehicle OTA Updates’, Tesla updated their braking system a few days after they discovered such a problem.[78] It is natural to wonder how Tesla developed, tested, verified and deployed a solution on a critically important problem.

In 2016, a pair of hackers compromised a Jeep Cherokee remotely, fooling the car into doing dangerous maneuvers like turning the steering wheel or activating the parking brake while driving at 70 mph.[79] This was extremely dangerous to the drivers, passengers and any others on the road.


Manufacturers need to take a proactive approach in dealing with safety and security risks of OTA updates to ensure the security and safety for vehicle owners.

The OEM should ensure that the software updates will be protected to prevent manipulation before the update process is initiated. The update processes used in OTA updates, including development of the system update program or firmware,[80] are protected to prevent them from being compromised. Over the years, Tesla has constantly run a bug bounty program, inviting white hat hackers to compromise their system. The company has given away millions of dollars in prizes to reward hackers who exposed system vulnerabilities.[81] Tesla’s system security and stability is greatly enhanced with these white-hat hackathons, which is becoming increasingly significant since OTA-enabled vehicles rely heavily on software.[82]

In order for OTA updates to be secure, OTA providers must enforce the integrity, confidentiality, availability and authenticity of the updates.[83]This includes ensuring the OEM IP address and data being processed are confidential and maintain metadata integrity throughout the update. Also, OTA update providers must prevent attackers from installing malicious firmware in the vehicle and in the cloud that stores the updates. For this to occur, vehicle-to-cloud and in-vehicle communication must be available. Secure communication, payload data, and the use of symmetric and asymmetric cryptography all play a role in ensuring the security of OTA updates.[84]

Companies also need to ensure that each update they send out works cohesively with existing data and software in the vehicle. [85]If an update were to negatively impact another vehicle-component or function, this would be detrimental to the reliability and usability of the vehicle. Some experts suggest requiring a brief check by a dealership technician and a mandatory tutorial before more advanced automated-driving software can be activated.[86]

Industry standards and government regulations may also be helpful in the future, once OTA updates and connected vehicles become increasingly popular and dominant in the automotive market.


Global Organizations

Two world organizations, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, are working to create a uniform set of regulations for countries and vehicle manufacturers to follow.


The EU, and many other countries including India, China and Japan, draw from the set of 100+ rules developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). This global organization strives to have countries draw from their standardized rules much like the electrical code in an American town draws on NFPA70, the U.S. electrical code.[87] Although some countries, such as Canada and the United States, choose to implement their own sets of regulations and standards. Vehicles must illustrate compliance with authorities in these countries following UN rules. If regulators are happy, they issue a ‘certificate of conformity’ which has been nicknamed the birth certificate of the car. One of the core aspects of these UN rules is that once type-approved, software and system changes can only be made if the type approval receives an approved amendment. [88]This is because the changed component would not be the same as the approved one and cannot be changed before or after the vehicle is sold.[89] Other companies, such as BMW, make software changes after approval, however, Tesla does not follow the same procedure.


In addition to UN regulations, there is another global ‘umbrella’ organization that represents car manufacturers called the OICA, which in English translates to the International Organization of Motor Vehicles Manufacturers. This organization, among other things, studies issues relating to the development and future of the automotive industry. OEMs are faced with a wide variety of different regulations in different countries, often aimed at achieving the same purpose. Harmonizing these regulations world-wide offers savings in technical resources, which can better be applied elsewhere, to produce better, cleaner and safer vehicles. It also offers the possibility of reducing production complexity, resulting in lower costs and prices and a wider choice of vehicles available to all consumers.[90] Tesla is not currently a member of the OICA. Many believe Tesla has not faced backlash from other manufacturers because they do not want to hinder their own OTA progress, but it does bring up the question if Tesla is operating in a legal grey zone.

OTA Investigation

In 2018, Tesla famously fixed the lousy breaks on the Model 3 immediately via an over-the-air update.[91] In the US this was deemed a risky maneuver, while in other parts of the world it was sought to be somewhat illegal. There is a long ‘simmering’ controversy over whether Tesla’s OTA updates violate EU rules; In fact Sweden is investigating whether the country should stop selling Tesla’s cars if there is a serious traffic safety risk. This issue is not new in Sweden, in 2015 the country’s regulator voiced its concern stating they did not think Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ should be approved. As these concerns grow, an accident could be all it takes to prompt Sweden to determine that Tesla’s OTA is against the law.[92]If that becomes the result, it may easily start a ripple effect through Europe and beyond. Moving forward, it is quite possible that a nightly OTA update would require customers to visit their local vehicle department to update their papers.


For an industry used to breaking down complex challenges and standardizing responses, cybersecurity remains an unstandardized anomaly. Current supplier relationships and contract arrangements do not often allow manufacturers to test the end-to-end cybersecurity of a vehicle platform as it is made up of parts sourced from various suppliers. This makes it difficult for both suppliers and manufacturers in order to work together in achieving effective cybersecurity during development and testing of the automotive software.[93]However, the difficulty is about to change.

Regulators are preparing minimum standards for vehicle software and cybersecurity that will most likely affect the entire value chain. As an example, in April of 2018, California’s final regulations on autonomous-vehicle testing came into effect, requiring autonomous vehicles to meet appropriate industry standards for cybersecurity.[94] Although this has a limited impact on a global scale, the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, which falls under the UN’s Economic Commission of Europe, very recently finalized its regulation on cybersecurity and software updates. [95]This news is significant in addressing OTA risks as hackers seek to access electronic systems and data, threatening vehicle safety and consumer privacy. Two new UN Regulations on Cybersecurity and Software Updates will help tackle these risks by establishing clear performance and audit requirements for car manufacturers. These are the first ever internationally harmonized and binding norms in this area. The new UN regulations require that measures be implemented across 4 distinct disciplines: managing vehicle cyber risks, securing vehicles by design to mitigate value chain risks, detecting and responding to security incidents across fleets and introducing a legal basis for Over-The-Air updates.[96]

Many industry experts see this as the beginning of a new era of technical compliance regulation within the automotive sector as they continue to address the increase and significance of software and connectivity in vehicles. These issues will continue to be looked at as the OTA market grows, seeing that by 2030, 98% of the cars sold globally are expected to be connected cars.[97]


As OTA technology continues to rise in popularity among vehicle manufacturers, it is expected that the market value will grow substantially. According to Statista, more than 203 million vehicles are predicted to have OTA capabilities by 2022 and the OTA market is expected to reach $8.776 billion USD by the end of 2025.[98] With significant growth predicted, the industry is expected to see some innovative and promising new use cases including the following[99]:

  1. Biometric Security Solutions and Remote Access Management - bio authentication methods and the use of digital keys.
  2. Pay Per Use Insurance - OTA technology opens the doors to new ways to pay for insurance. Vehicle data can be dispatched to insurers through the OEM who will then offer various insurance options.
  3. Integrated Business Services - drivers will be able to synchronise their phone with the vehicle computer for email and calendar access controlled through voice prompts.
  4. In Vehicle Shopping - connected through the vehicle infotainment system, the system would be able to support food or coffee orders and arrange pickups.


Jaya Gill Jason Hu Lucia Shan Sam Thackray Spencer Unger
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada


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