Nearly 60% to 70% of the recalls in major automotive markets such as North America and Europe are due to software glitches. Volume cars have at least 20m to 30m lines of software code, while in premium cars, that number could be as high as 100m. At an average cost of US$10 per line, these electronic systems do not come cheap. Therefore, recalls will not only leave a dent on original equipment manufacturers’ (OEMs’) reputation, but also lead to multi-billion dollar losses.

The value of software in vehicles is set to increase as much as 50% by 2020, which makes it imperative for OEMs to manage the software efficiently over the lifecycle of the vehicle. This is why they are increasingly taking to wireless technologies such as over the air (OTA) updates. This technology not only lowers operating costs (including warranty and recall costs), but also offers new functional updates to customers.

Audi recently started providing new features such as parking and petrol prices using OTA updates on its Audi connect solution, while GM has been offering OTA updates to its Bluetooth platform using the OnStar embedded connectivity platform. Both Tesla and Chrysler provide firmware OTA (FOTA) through an embedded 3G data connection in the car or a Wi-Fi router. Other car makers that offer this technology include Toyota, Mercedes Benz and BMW.

OTA is a potential game changer with its ability to fix bugs and enhance features without requiring a physical connection to the vehicle. Once OEMs upgrade to this infrastructure, they are likely to experience a rapid and dramatic improvement in vehicle performance and customer satisfaction, and a steep dip in costs.

“With connected vehicles on the road, real-time data probing and collection techniques, software OTA (SOTA) and FOTA are not limited to the infotainment space,” said Frost & Sullivan automotive and transportation industry analyst Krishna Jayaraman.

Redbend and Vector recently announced an OTA solution that can be used to update the software on the engine control unit’s flash drive. This will enable OEMs to directly interface with the vehicle and send out updates in cases of software hitches. Another popular solution is Symphony Teleca's Insight Connect Vehicle Relationship Management, which is an end-to-end supervising solution that serves as a cost-effective, one-stop shop for all vehicle-related services ranging from diagnostics and infotainment platform, to software maintenance.

While the advantages of these wireless technologies cannot be disputed, they come with inherent safety challenges. Software developers need to ensure that the remote interaction is encrypted to eliminate unauthorised access to any vehicle system. They also need to set up an effective distribution channel for the vehicle parc, which does not currently have connectivity modules, as well as for the cars with tethered connectivity from smartphones.

Until the issues related to OTA are addressed, car owners are likely to use USB drive-based updates or drive the car to service centre/dealership for fixes.

“It will be interesting to notice the methods that OEMs will adopt to interact directly with the vehicles,” said Jayaraman. “There has to be a safe delivery approach, wherein the update file size is considerably small, and the business models are tailor-made to dealerships so that the entire warranty and repair revenue streams of dealerships do not get affected.”