Over-the-air software coming soon to your next car

OTA software upgrades will not only affect your entertainment system but power train and vehicle safety systems

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Ford recently confirmed that it's switching from a Windows-based Sync platform to Blackberry's QNX Car platform, which will allow its Sync 3 infotainment system to receive OTA updates. Honda plans to allow OTA upgrades via a home Wi-Fi network.

Toyota and its Lexus subsidiary have enabled OTA upgrades for the EnTune infotainment system via a Bluetooth paired or physically connected smartphone or tablet. Nissan and Infinity have an OTA upgrade platform in place, but the automaker has not enabled updates. When the companies do, it will be for infotaiment, not powertrain or other systems related to vehicle operation, according to Boyadjis.

Daimler-Chrysler also has enabled OTA updates, but they also ARE limited to the telematics control unit, Boyadjis said.

New architectures needed to enable OTA software

One of the impediments to OTA software updates has been the vehicle's internal bus, which in many vehicles is a CAN (controller area network), a slow (500Kbps to 1Mbps) and somewhat unsophisticated standard with hard firewalls that creates ECU islands; you can wirelessly talk to the infotainment system ECU, but not the ECUs controlling airbags, antilock braking, cruise control and electric power steering.

Even the most widely adopted high-speed transport specification in newer cars -- Media Oriented Systems Transport (MOST) -- contain a number of disparate protocols, depending on which automaker has deployed it.

Safety is the main reason for hard firewalls between vehicle ECUs. If ECUs are centrally connected to receive OTA upgrades, there's also a security vulnerability.

It's one thing for a hacker to disable a navigation system or radio, but it's another thing to be able to access a vehicle's powertrain or braking system.

The MOST 150 specification offers up to 1.2Gbps throughput, opening up bandwidth for the increasing number of electronics in today's and tomorrow's vehicles.

But manufacturers are looking closely at the venerable Ethernet networking standard as a more secure protocol that also offers time-tested security.

For example, Ford uses the CAN specification, but it's considering Ethernet as a "supplemental data transport system," according to Nick Colella, Ford's Infotainment manager.

Moving Ethernet along as a vehicle bus protocol is a well-oiled supply chain, including some of the top microchip makers. Last year, for example, Freescale announced its first automotive-grade Ethernet chipset and software, paving the way for automakers to install 100Mbps networks in vehicles.

Freescale automotive grade Ethernet Freescale

Freescale's new Ethernet board will allow up to four separate video streams, along with a networking topology to connect all electronic devices together.

The new processors from Freescale will connect in-car electronics and Wi-Fi routers over standard two-wire twisted pair cable, not CAT 5, making it robust enough to serve as a networking topology for vehicles.

According to DragTimes, an online racing magazine whose writers have tested the Tesla Model S on the track, the car uses an internal 100Mbps, full duplex Ethernet network.

By 2020, many cars will have 50 to 60 Ethernet ports, and even entry-level vehicles will have at least 10, according to a study by research firm Frost & Sullivan. (Premium vehicles will likely have more than 100 Ethernet nodes by then.)

Tesla has an advantage with an in-factory developed platform created to be more open to OTA upgrades and less open to security issues. But that may change in the future, according to Boyadjis.

It's one thing to internally develop and build 30,000 Model S cars, but when you're building 300,000 or 3 million, that's another story, and it also involves more third-party suppliers.

"Going forward, Tesla said they are going to partner out for a lot of those things, which will make elements of their technology more complicated," Boyadjis said.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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