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Web Upgrades Could Change the Auto Industry

by | Jan 28, 2021

car web upgrade

A turf war of sorts is brewing in the auto industry over who gets to upgrade vehicle software. At issue is the “right” of manufacturers to push software changes directly to vehicles over the Internet.

General Motors, for example, now upgrades its OnStar software remotely without requiring owners to bring their cars in. But some dealers say that GM should not insert itself between them and their buyers and that wireless upgrades deprive dealers of chances to build customer relations and loyalties.

GM VP of Global Vehicle Engineering Karl Stracke told Automotive News that GM manages its software developed internally and will transmit more software upgrades over the Web in the future.

Stracke told the trade publication’s James B. Treece: “We need to have the internal capability and not be dependent on the suppliers. We use and integrate the software of the suppliers, but I am writing the codes. I am the intellectual property owner of the codes.”

The ground being broken here is more political than technological. Wireless updates of satellites and phones happen now. Trucks have been updated remotely, too. The OnStar update seems to be more of a tug-of-war among various sectors of the auto industry than an issue of feasibility.

The auto industry is a group of interlocked constituencies: manufacturers, dealers, parts suppliers, finance and insurance providers, after-market parts sellers, and the owners themselves. Dealers maintain that they are the auto manufacturers’ “real” customers and that the vehicle owners are the dealers’ real customers. Dealers say it is wrong for manufacturers to bypass them to push improvements.

More wireless upgrades seem likely as software becomes a growing part of vehicles, and upgrades might not just come from manufacturers.

Ford Motor Company is a case in point: Ford has not yet tried wireless upgrades, though the capability to do some upgrades remotely is available. Also, owners of some Ford pickups have driven to dealerships for a 30-minute software upgrade that improves torque and horsepower.

When some Ford owners on a social networking site said they wanted to upload their phone address books into the hands-free Ford SYNC system — which supports voice-activated, hands-free calling, music playing, directional, and 911 assistance — so that they could dial contacts by saying a name, Ford’s IT community went to work. Within 90 days, the team offered a prototype application on Ford’s SyncMyRide.com Website for owners of SYNC-enabled vehicles.

The owners now can download and install applications through the cars’ USB ports. More applications, as well as manuals and instructions for uploading new software, are online at SyncMyRide.

Owner-installed software upgrades like these are a short step away from having owners order up their own wireless upgrades from a Website, bypassing both dealers and manufacturers.

Upgrades by the Internet also could affect parts that come from suppliers rather than manufacturers. Auto radios, for example, are not built by auto companies, but by suppliers who also service them, usually after a handoff from the dealer. Couldn’t radio suppliers to upgrade sound systems by pushing upgrades out through the Internet themselves?

The multimillion-dollar market in custom parts and modifications might also start being a source of direct software upgrades.

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