What are over-the-air updates for cars and how do they work?
While cars have a load of mechanical parts that keep them moving, they also are largely computerized these days. As quickly as an iPhone ages, so does the technology in your car. The evolution is continuous from the screen you use to control the radio to the mapping system and beyond.
Automakers used to control updates to in-car computer systems tightly. They'd sell a few navigation system updates as part of a bundle and require owners to stop by and wait, inevitably browsing the selection in the showroom, while their vehicle was serviced by a tech who inserted a card into a slot that contained new information that would be loaded into the navigation system.
Here, a Ford engineer tests the over-the-air updates system inside the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Sometimes there would be necessary updates for the vehicle's operating system that needed to occur as part of a recall. That would require another trip to the dealer.
Want the newest software available for your infotainment screen? You guessed it. You need to schedule another service appointment at the dealership.
For many vehicle owners, when they purchase a new car, truck, van, or SUV, they won't have to head to the dealership and get an update for their car's computer system once they've purchased. They can receive those over-the-air (OTA) updates in their driveway, garage, or in a parking deck. Really anywhere their vehicle can get a solid signal from the skies above.
This is thanks to a modem that is installed in their vehicle. The modem downloads the update (either automatically or when owners opt to have it happen post-notification) then conduct the software update, many times while the vehicle is not in motion. However, some vehicles have the ability to do the whole process in the background while you're on the road, with little disruption to the vehicle's operations.
The time it takes to download an update varies by the size of the update as well as modem connectivity and speed capability. This is similar to how your computer, tablet, or smartphone downloads an update then tells you it's ready to update (if you've selected notifications) or it lets you know that your device has been updated (if you've selected automatic updates).
The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E can perform most updates in around two minutes.
Ideally it will work seamlessly each time.
You may be wondering if you need to pay the monthly fee to Verizon or AT&T to have the modem connected to the internet in order to be the beneficiary of these updates. The answer is no. The updates will be pushed over-the-air to the proper vehicle regardless of whether of not you have an internet connectivity subscription.