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Imagine if every time Apple pushed out an update for your iPhone — from a major operating system refresh to a security patch — you were required to make an appointment at an Apple store, bring your phone in at the designated date and time, and hang around for what could be several hours waiting for your phone to be serviced. Sure, maybe there would be free Wi-Fi and good coffee, but after a while the process would become tedious and frustrating.

“Frustrating” and “tedious” is exactly how many people would describe a visit to the service station or dealer for upkeep on their cars. A recent mobility study found that one in three people would prefer not to own a car, due in part to the hassle of maintenance.

We aren’t required to bring our phones, laptops, tablets, and connected TVs into the shop for software updates. The hope is that we won’t need to do this for the next generation of vehicles, either.

By now, it’s well known that today’s connected vehicle is dominated by software, so much so that software-related issues grew to account for 15 percent of all recalls by the end of 2015, according to Stout Risius Ross (SSR). Software needs to be updated from time to time. And sometimes, as in the case of a recall, those updates need to be made urgently. A study from J.D. Power’s also showed that of the 189 software-related recalls affecting more than 13 million vehicles between 2012 and 2016, 141 presented a risk of crashing, while 44 had the potential to cause injury.


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But what if all of those updates could be made anytime and anywhere, using built-in connectivity — be it cellular, Wi-Fi, or satellite? How much money and time could be saved? And with the connectivity pipe established, how many new services could be marketed to the vehicle owner?

This is where the idea of over-the-air (OTA) updates holds so much promise across the auto industry. It may sound commercial, operational, and even a little mundane, but the impact it could have in the automotive world is wide-ranging and extends to automotive manufacturers, dealers, service centers, vehicle owners, and technology partners. For this reason, automakers are eager to integrate OTA software update capabilities into the next generation of connected vehicles.

Some companies have already begun rolling OTA updates out in various forms. Tesla, widely regarded as one of the most innovative automakers, can remotely update the firmware on its Model S using terrestrial connectivity. Ford has the ability to update its Sync 3 infotainment system, as well. With more automakers looking at OTA updates, IHS Automotive forecasts OTA update-related revenue will grow from $60 million in 2017 to over $800 million by 2022.

The challenge now is not necessarily whether to develop the capability, it’s how best to do it and with which connectivity option. After all, none of this is possible without a reliable pipeline. Cellular is readily available, is already integrated into a number of today’s connected vehicles, and is a widely understood and embraced form of connectivity. But cellular isn’t global — automakers will need to develop individual roaming agreements around the world, and concerns related to hacking vulnerability are high.

Satellite has the unique ability to deliver common updates to millions of cars at once. It can work as a complement to cellular to efficiently and securely connect to fleets of vehicles across the globe, even in areas where cellular coverage may not exist. Satellite is also immune to natural or manmade disasters that can take down a land-based cellular or Wi-Fi network. Automakers have less familiarity with satellite, however, and while work is underway to develop chip sets and components that can be embedded into the vehicle’s antenna and internal electronic units, we’re only in the beginning phase of this process.

It will likely be a convergence of multiple connectivity options into a single “network of networks” that will ultimately deliver on the great promise OTA updates offer automakers and vehicle owners. In that case, intelligent routing would determine which network is used to transmit a specific update based on file size, urgency, breadth of update, location of connected vehicle, and so on.

By 2025, almost every new car will have connectivity. The more innovative and progressive automakers are already thinking about how best to utilize that connectivity to reduce costs and generate revenue opportunities through delivery of new services. On the surface, OTA updates as a concept may not be as sexy or marketable as in-vehicle Wi-Fi, and you probably won’t hear the term during next year’s Super Bowl car commercials. But the ability to remotely connect to vehicles will certainly help automakers derive the greatest value from their connectivity investments.

Greg Ewert is the president of Inmarsat’s Connected Car division. The company works with automotive suppliers and manufacturers to bring satellite connectivity to the next generation of connected vehicles.

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