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Why Your Car Won’t Get Remote Software Updates Anytime Soon

Software is taking over cars. But it may be a while before it can be updated without a trip to the dealer.
February 20, 2014

When Toyota recalled over two million cars last week because of flaws with antilock braking systems and other problems, the fix was simple—a few software updates.

The implementation of that fix is far from simple. Every one of those cars has to be taken into a dealership to have the new software installed, an expensive process that can take months. Cars that haven’t been fixed could, in some cases, suddenly stall and crash.

There is an alternative—the same sort of remote software updates used for PCs and smart phones. Indeed, one automaker, Tesla Motors, already provides what it calls “over-the-air updates,” which allowed it to execute a recent software fix without requiring anybody to bring in their cars (see “Tesla Motors’ Over-the-Air Repairs Are the Way Forward”).

Increasingly, many cars have wireless connections, for infotainment and communications; and some automakers already use wireless connections to add software to their cars at the factory. Even so, it will take some time for major automakers to implement over-the-air updates, both because they’re worried about security and because they might face resistance from dealers.

Software is rapidly taking over not only the entertainment console in cars, but also basic functions such as steering, braking, and acceleration, as more cars come with features such as adaptive cruise control and automated parallel parking. This can make it easier to diagnose and fix problems, but it also increases the risk for software bugs or even malicious attacks that might cause serious injury.

Software-focused recalls are becoming common. In Toyota’s case, its software updates were designed to fix a computer problem that could disable antilock braking and other safety systems, or cause the hybrid propulsion system on its Prius vehicles to shut down. Last month, GM recalled 370,000 trucks at risk of overheating and catching fire, a problem it’s solving with a dealer-installed software patch.

In addition to potentially improving safety by delivering fixes faster, remote updates could save automakers money. “It’s very expensive to update the software when you have to bring it into the dealership,” says Andre Weimerskirch, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Greg Schroeder, a senior research engineer at the Center for Automotive Research, says there’s “considerable interest” in the auto industry in developing remote updates. But he says most automakers are still in the early stage of testing the technology.

Toyota, in fact, says it recognizes that remote updates are technically possible, and could be convenient. But despite the inconvenience of the current approach, it’s decided not to do them for now because of “security challenges.”

These challenges are not small. Researchers have shown that existing wireless connections can allow them to hack into cars and take control of car locks and brakes; and this summer hackers demonstrated how to take over a car and steer it, slam on the brakes, or tell drivers that a nearly empty gas tank is full. Charlie Miller, a computer security expert for Twitter, is one of the hackers who took control of two cars this summer to uncover vulnerabilities. He says that remote updates will add a new target for hackers. But he downplays the risk, noting that no malicious hackers have taken over cars, in part because there’s no economic reason to do so. And he says remote updating systems can be made secure—“It’s possible to screw it up. But it’s certainly possible to do it right,” he says.

There is another reason automakers are moving slowly. Unlike Tesla, most automakers depend on independent dealers to sell their cars, and dealers have good reason to oppose automatic updates that would take them out of the loop. They get much of their revenue from servicing cars, says Joachim Taiber, a research professor in automotive engineering at Clemson University. And having drivers come into the dealership also helps dealers sell more cars.  He says Tesla may have been more willing to do automatic updates in part because it doesn’t work with independent dealers.

Even if the change is slow, Miller says, remote software updates for cars are inevitable. As the amount of software in a car—and the potential for bugs—increases, remote updates “are going to have to happen,” he says. With the current approach of bringing cars into dealerships, “It can be months before software gets updated. It might never get updated,” he says. “That leaves a lot of cars in a vulnerable state.”

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