In-Car Tech

What are over-the-air updates for cars and how do they work?

Vehicles can receive updates to their computer systems via an embedded modem.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

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.

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-EHere, 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.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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The IIHS may increase the speeds it uses to test advanced driver aids.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently announced that it is considering changing the speeds it uses to test vehicle-to-vehicle front crash prevention systems. The agency currently tests the systems at 12 and 25 mph, but says that the speeds don't accurately represent the types of crashes the safety tech is meant to prevent.

Front crash preventionwww.youtube.com

Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is designed to notify of a possible collision and help respond with automatic application of braking. Just like a human using the brake pedal, it can stop the car, but higher speeds make it difficult to stop in time. The new tests would be conducted at 35 to 45 mph, which is the range where a large number of rear-end crashes occur. As Automotive News noted, an IIHS study showed 43 percent of rear-end crashes occur at speeds of 45 mph or less, so it's important to have a test that shows how well the tech performs at those levels.

A whopping 85 percent of 2022 vehicles earned a "Superior" rating in the current testing regime, so the IIHS will remove it from 2023 testing and Top Safety Pick award evaluations. Their view is that, since the majority of vehicles meet the criteria, it's no longer an accurate way of evaluating performance. In its place, the agency introduced a night test for automatic emergency braking systems that will begin next year.

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