Imagine if you sunk a significant amount of money into a new computer. But six months later a new application or program came out and you couldn't add it — or update the computer so it could. Instead, if you wanted the latest capabilities, you'd have to buy a new computer or perform an expensive hardware upgrade.
Seems like a ridiculous way to design a product, yet that's the way it is with most in-cabin car electronics. You spend thousands of dollars on a new car, and the technology may already be several years old because of automakers' long product planning cycles. And if you buy a vehicle and an electronic feature that you really wanted comes out on the next model, you're usually out of luck since there's no way to add it — other than buying a new car.
Routine Software Updates
Of course, in the consumer electronics industry, software and firmware updates are common. And it's not that the auto industry doesn't deal with software upgrades on a regular basis, too. It's become routine for the service department at car dealerships to update an engine's or transmission's software.
"Software updates already exist," noted Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics, which provides Mercedes-Benz's mbrace telematics system. "There are plenty of examples of highly computerized engines and transmissions that need to be brought back to the dealer for a software patch. When you bring your car to a dealership and they plug in a scan tool, they're probably updating software and most consumers don't even realize it."
Several car companies are also starting to allow software updates for infotainment electronics, and in some cases even letting car owners do it themselves. The best example is Ford's Sync system, which was developed in conjunction with Microsoft and is largely software-based.
As Ford rolls out new Sync capabilities, owners of existing vehicles with the system are able to add them via software updates. To update Sync, car owners can simply download software from the Sync Web site and then upload it to a vehicle through its USB port. And it's free.
For example, when Edmunds' Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds found out that his iPhone 3GS didn't work well with the Sync system in our long-term Ford Flex, he downloaded the latest software and solved the problem. The only exception to this is Sync's 911 Assist and Vehicle Health Reports features, which requires a dealer-installed software upgrade that costs about $100. We also recently added those two features to our Flex.
Microsoft began working with Fiat before launching Ford Sync, and the European automaker's Blue & Me system can also be upgraded. "Fiat actually pioneered [software upgrades] with the eco:Drive application in 2007," noted Greg Baribault, director of product management and marketing for Microsoft Auto. "That was done to embrace the trend of green, eco-friendly driving, and eco:Drive was developed to work with the car's existing Microsoft Auto platform."
Microsoft has also started working with Kia, which earlier this year introduced a Sync-like system called Uvo. It has many of the same features as well as the capability to be upgraded, according to Baribault. "I don't know what they're going to do" he said, "since they haven't launched the first version yet. But the Microsoft Auto platform it's built on does support updates. It's really up to Kia to decide if they want to allow it."
Security Is Key
So why aren't more automakers moving in the software download direction? Much of it has to do with safety concerns. "A critical part of allowing software updates is security," said Baribault. "Security is a key requirement and a big part of our focus. We'd never want someone writing an application or doing something malicious and getting that installed in the car."
To prevent this, Baribault says Microsoft Auto adds "an extra layer of security" in its software platform that allows the automaker to digitally sign off on updates before they can be installed in a vehicle. "So if you buy a Fiat or Ford or eventually a Kia with our system in it," he remarked, "for that system to get an update, the OEM has to be involved in signing off on the code to allow it to run in a specific car."
Thilo Koslowski, an analyst who follows automotive electronics trends for the market research firm Gartner, agrees that security is an important issue. But he noted that since the capability to easily upgrade infotainment software now exists — and could potentially save money for automakers and frustration for car owners — it will gain momentum. "I think you'll see more car companies doing this because it allows them to fix things quickly," Koslowski said.
Koslowski added that while most systems currently require software to be physically loaded into the car, "over the air" updates could soon become common. "Just imagine," he said, "if you have a problem like Toyota currently has that could be addressed by a quick over-the-air software upgrade and could be done securely. That would be more in the automaker's interest than having every customer bring their car to a dealership. First, it takes less time to fix a problem before an accident happens, and secondly, it would be much cheaper."
Updating software in a vehicle is still a cumbersome process, noted Koslowski, and something not every car owner is comfortable with. "You have to download it onto a USB drive and then load it onto your vehicles," he said. "Eventually business factors will make it more viable and more realistic for OEMs to do this over the air."
Hughes Telematics' Goldman described over-the-air software updates as the Holy Grail for the auto industry. "It's been the target for years because it has high value for an automaker," he remarked. "If they can update software over the air, it enhances the customer's experience and their cost savings, since bringing vehicles back to the dealer is very expensive. But that's balanced by engineering departments being risk-averse, and rightly so," he added. "There are question marks about how to do that, but it is doable. And it's not black magic."
Goldman pointed out that remote software upgrades are common in other industries. "Another company Hughes owns updates satellite terminals this way in probably a million-plus terminals around the world, and it works really well." Goldman also revealed that Hughes Telematics has field-tested being able to remotely update mbrace services, although bringing the capability to consumers is still several years away.
Perhaps the biggest incentive for automakers to allow software updates of car infotainment systems is to keep up with consumers' expectations. "There's somewhat of a sense of urgency for the auto industry to start addressing this," Koslowski said, "because consumer expectations have evolved. Most people own electronics that can be easily updated with new software or firmware, and consumers are beginning to get frustrated that they can't do that in the car.
"The time is coming when automakers will have to offer this as not to anger consumers," he added. "Otherwise they'll miss the boat."
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