OTA mandate? May be worth considering.

I am a big believer in over-the-air updates to automobiles. I
absolutely love what Tesla has done. I was trolling Tesla’s update logs
the other day and realized since September 2012, they have performed 29
software releases for the Model S comprising of multiple updates!
Twenty-nine software releases over roughly 32 months is about one
software version every 1.1 months, very close to once a month. Within
these 29 software updates, many have granular dot releases that would
put the number of OTAs Tesla has pushed is closer to 88.

Anyone else smell Agile in action?!

From the logs posted on Tesla Motor Club, the updates range from adding
a “cancel search” button to improving steering wheel button controls, to
INSANE mode. Tesla has delivered “auto-presenting door handles”, added
USB media browsing, improved range and battery life, fixed bugs, added
Norwegian language commands, enhanced maps, and famously raised the
vehicle clearance. It really makes me wish every single vehicle was
updatable over-the-air.

I know that managing software updates on what is likely less than
75,000* vehicles globally may seem trivial at first blush, especially
since we’ve become so used to updating our phones that such updates now
feel like a natural part of modern life. However, since these vehicles
are not mono-spec, keeping track of the state of software versions
across multiple trim levels is complicated. Beyond simple version
control, Tesla must monitor each vehicle update needed and how the
wireless transmissions performed. They also need to keep an eye on any
versions that may need to be rolled back, and why.

Unlike a phone, updating a vehicle requires comprehensive and complete
communication for full understanding of the changes by the driver. A
phone weighs less than 5 ounces and will not kill you if its operating
interface has changed. A Tesla weighs 4,650 pounds and tops out at 130
mph. If the operating interface changes in a distracting manner the
results could be catastrophic.

Tesla is learning many valuable lessons about updating vehicles
remotely. We can only assume they will apply those learnings as they
ramp up production and bring more models and trim levels to market. I
seriously doubt there is an established automotive OEM around today that
will ever be able to match Tesla for their OTA prowess. This is and
will remain a serious competitive advantage for Tesla for years to come.

Tesla has the distinct advantage of having vehicles that have explicitly
been designed to be updated constantly. And I imagine with an electric
vehicle, there is a larger percentage of the vehicle that can be updated
vs. a traditional petrol combustion engine. The rest of the
established, large OEMs were and are designing vehicles to be fixed by
dealers and independent mechanics and the majority of parts are hardware
not software. There are obvious benefits to being able to update your
vehicles OTA – adding new features, new services, fixing HMI, fixing
bugs – you get it. What is not obvious is how hard it will be and how
long it will take for a large OEM to begin rolling out vehicles capable
of receiving the types of software version updates that Tesla is doing

Tesla is selling one model of vehicle with 4 trim levels globally. They
plan to add two more models soon. Toyota, not counting Lexus or Scion,
sells about 20 models, each with multiple trim levels in the U.S. The
complexity Tesla has to deal with pales in comparison to Toyota.

But that does not mean that there are not clear benefits for Toyota to
begin the process of rolling out OTA capable vehicles today. Toyota,
General Motors, Ford, Nissan, all of the OEMs can begin to reap the
benefits of OTA even without contemplating deep engineering changes,
like what Tesla is doing. I get it that many mechanical vehicular
engineers are and will remain reticent regarding OTA updates. But not
all OTA updates have to be firmware or even software.

I strongly believe that communicating with the vehicle owner directly in
the vehicle itself offers significant value to the OEM, the vehicle
owner, and society at large. The OEM does not need to know who exactly
owns the vehicle or where the vehicle is located. The OEM needs to know
the VIN and have the ability to send it audio and/or text messages.

Valuable messages regarding recalls could and should be sent directly to
the vehicle.

Last year, over 65 million vehicles were recalled. This year, we have
over 40 million vehicles recalled and it’s only June. NTHSA estimates
that after one year, a full 25% of recalled vehicles are not repaired.
Many reasons exist for recognizably unsafe vehicles not being repaired;
owner fatigue over too many recalls, not enough parts to fix the
problem, and life simply getting in the way of scheduling a fix.
However, a lot of vehicles remained unrepaired because the owner of the
vehicle does not know their vehicle has been recalled and is unsafe.

OEMs do not know who owns the vehicles they sold, where they live, or
how to reach them. Most OEMs have some information, but it is not 100%
accurate. There are many reasons for OEMs to not know who owns the
vehicles they have sold, including the OEMs being excluded, by law in
the state of California, to have access to DMV records. General Motors
could not correlate DMV registration records with VINs in California
even to notify the owners that they are driving a vehicle that has a
fatal flaw.

But if the Corvette had the ability to engage in a two-way conversation,
GM could send a message to the vehicle saying “you are being recalled,
get fixed”, then GM wouldn’t have to know where the vehicle resides or
who owns it, just that it has something wrong with it that is serious
enough to warrant a recall. It is completely reasonable for a vehicle
with cellular connectivity to receive a message – audio or written –
that states something is amiss and that the driver should visit
www.autoOEM.com for details. A recall message could be played once
every 30 days until a certified mechanic has removed the message.
Notification is valuable. It would allow the owner and/or driver of a
vehicle to make an informed choice, such as to drive the Corvette with
defective airbag or not.

There are millions and millions of vehicles on the road in the U.S. with
embedded two-way communications. In fact, GM standardized OnStar nearly
a decade ago. As our government contemplates what to do about the high
number of vehicular recalls, I sincerely hope they look to recommend or
require OTA systems such as those Tesla is trailblazing with. At
minimum, they should push for OTA notification systems so that drivers
will be more aware of important information regarding their cars.

Ultimately I would like to see a future where cars are aware of their
“health”. We live in a world where devices with a fraction of the
lifespan of a car are able to keep themselves up to date. It’s about
time that our cars catch up.

This blog is also part of the LA Autoshow’s Connected Car Expo blog.

*Estimate cobbled together from various sites 2,650 vehicles in 2012 –

25,000 vehicles globally in 2013 –

32,000 vehicles globally in 2014 –

13,785 in 2015 – http://wardsauto.com/blog/tesla-faces-competition-all-fronts