OTA software updates now serving ECUs for engine, brakes and steering

Over-the-air (OTA) software updates used to be a drag in vehicles; technically possible but practically hard to carry out. Japanese car OEMs were first to introduce for navigation maps using telematics units. In-car infotainment systems were the next frontier for software over-the-air () and firmware over-the-air () updates.

However, SOTA updates for electronic control units (ECUs) have been rare, mainly because their functionality for the engine, brakes, and suspension is built deeper into a car’s network bus. And these ECU are generally made up of microcontrollers with a limited amount of RAM and flash memory.

Then, Tesla built an ECU architecture from scratch; it incorporated OTA features via connectivity in the basic design while launching its Autopilot driver-assistance system in 2015. To make it happen, Tesla collaborated with OTA services specialist Red Bend Software, whose Smart Delta technology allowed Tesla to replace the code instead of replacing the entire file.

[Harman's OTA updates solution can be installed into a car's network gateway.]

Also in 2015, Harman, a supplier of in-car media solutions, acquired Red Bend to extend its engineering services portfolio from in-car infotainment to ECUs controlling the engine, ADAS Advanced Driver Assistance Systems), and air bags. Now the Stamford, Connecticut-based firm has joined hands with NXP to create a “software update gateway” that’s capable of secure OTA operations for all ECUs regardless of CPU, memory, and network resources.

Harman’s solution for OTA updates is based on NXP’s MPC574xG secured gateway processors that can be installed inside vehicle’s network gateway, thus eliminating the need for the Internet-connected telematics unit as well as car downtime required for flash updates. It’s worth noting that the OTA updates carried out over the network embody security risks, and in the case of cellular links, come with a significant cost.

Apparently, OTA software updates are a hugely attractive proposition for car owners because it spares them a visit to the local dealership and vehicle downtime. On the other hand, car OEMs value OTA updates due to huge cost savings as they eliminate the need for software recalls and associated warranty costs.

Market research firm IHS Automotive forecasts that carmakers’ cost savings from OTA software updates will grow from $2.7 billion in 2015 to $35 billion in 2022. However, most of these savings will come from OTA updates of infotainment and telematics systems. That’s because ECUs that control engine, brakes, and steering are still a tough nut to crack when it comes to in-the-field SOTA and FOTA updates.

[NXP's MPC574xG processors are embedded into Harman's OTA gateway solution.]

At the same time, however, the IHS Markit study forecasts that most automakers will introduce OTA software update capabilities by 2020. Furthermore, IHS predicts that the number of cars with OTA update support for ECUs will increase from 86,000 vehicles in 2015 to nearly 25.7 million vehicles by 2022.

There is some help coming from the standards front for ECUs to be updated over the air. For instance, the Genivi Alliance, an industry forum that includes BMW and Nissan, is collaborating on open-source software for OTA updates. That clearly shows momentum for OTA updates that are now steadily transitioning from a tech novelty to a mainstream connected car feature.

is a former Editor-in-Chief of EE Times Asia. He is a journalist with an engineering background and two decades of experience in writing and editing technical content. He is also the author of six books on electronics: Smartphone, Nokia’s Smartphone Problem, The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices, Mobile Commerce 2.0, Age of Mobile Data, and Essential 4G Guide.

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