• Over the Air Updates
  • Electric Vehicles
  • Advanced Driver Assistance Systems

Over-the-Air Updates Should Be Subject to Type Approval

Sam Abuelsamid
Feb 15, 2019

Smart Car 5

Like Apple, over the years, Tesla has often received credit for innovations that it actually borrowed and popularized, such as using lithium ion batteries for electric cars. However, Tesla deserves credit for innovations such as the electronic architecture of its vehicles and the ability to deploy over-the-air (OTA) updates to vehicle software. That said, Tesla’s approach to OTA updates is not without issue, and the current OTA process could lead to sales bans in Europe.

Efficient and Timely Updates

During much of my engineering career, I worked on electronic control systems such as antilock brakes and stability control. A running joke I learned early from more experienced colleagues was that “there comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineers and get on with the job.” In essence, you must eventually stop tweaking or adding new features and ship a product. Every engineer I worked with wanted to continuously improve what they were doing, but the technology did not yet exist to ship running updates.

As vehicles become ever more advanced and functionality is enabled by software, efficiently updating that software becomes critically important. Since the turn of the century, we have added flash memory that enables vehicles in the field to be updated to fix errors as they are discovered. However, until Tesla started performing OTA updates using cell data or Wi-Fi connectivity, updates required dealer visits, which manufacturers were reticent to finance.

OTA updates dramatically reduce costs but add risks, which brings us back to shooting the engineers. Given the opportunity, most engineers would be constantly trying to improve the product. However, without process controls in place to ensure that updates are properly tested, regressions could emerge or drivers could be surprised by functional changes that are not fully explained.

Regulation Violation Concerns

Updates could also potentially lead to performance that violates regulations. For example, most jurisdictions have safety standards governing brake performance. In 2018, Tesla pushed an update that changed the braking performance of the Model 3 after a poor review from Consumer Reports. Subsequent tests by Consumer Reports showed a distinct improvement in dry pavement braking, but the full certification tests were not run, so it is not clear whether the Model 3 is still in compliance.

The Tesla AutoPilot advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) has received more updates than any system since ADAS launched in 2015. Many of these updates have received negative reviews from owners and resulted in inconsistent performance.

In the US market, no specific regulations govern OTA updates or ADAS performance. Manufacturers self-certify by testing and filing compliance documents with regulators, which are only occasionally audited. In Europe and other regions, manufacturers must go through a type approval process before a vehicle can be sold, and no changes are allowed without an amended type approval.

This poses a problem for Tesla, which has never requested an amendment to its type approvals based on OTA updates. Regulators in Sweden are currently considering banning the sale of Tesla vehicles that may violate type approval regulations because of post-sale modifications.

The Solution: OTA Proper Vetting

OTA updates enable genuine benefits for both the consumer and the manufacturer. Consumers can get new or improved features and safety benefits and companies save on warranty costs. However, current type approval processes were developed before OTA updates were a practical reality and they may be too slow, especially where safety or cybersecurity updates are concerned. Manufacturers, including Tesla, need to work with regulators in all markets to update the rules to confirm that OTA updates are properly vetted while ensuring they are not slowed when time is of the essence.