Owners of late-model Ford and Lincoln brand vehicles recently received something unusual in the mail: a thumb-sized USB flash drive.
Ford Motor mailed more than 250,000 of the tiny data storage devices to its customers in response to widespread criticism of the company’s MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch dashboard entertainment system. Each memory stick contained a much-needed software update to fix bugs and make the system faster and more user-friendly. Owners simply plug the device into their car’s USB port and follow the prompts on the dashboard screen (or have a dealer do it).
Of course, there are a couple of hitches: To install the new software, the car needs to be running for about an hour. And you can’t use the radio.
There ought to be a better way. After all, your computer and your mobile phone get remote software upgrades all the time. Isn’t your car just another node in your personal network? It ought to receive automatic upgrades, too. Someday — and not too long from now — it will.
As usual, it’s a luxury car manufacturer that will lead the way with this technology breakthrough. Mercedes-Benz’ 2013 SL roadster, on sale next month, will be the first car capable of “remote flashing.” Software upgrades can be downloaded wirelessly and installed through Mercedes’ next-generation telematics system called mbrace2. By enabling instant software upgrades, Mercedes is helping to close the gap between the rapid pace of innovation in consumer electronics and the much longer time it takes to engineer a new vehicle.
“Traditionally, in-vehicle technology is finalized more than a year before a vehicle comes to market and is difficult to upgrade,” said Steve Cannon, president and CEO of Mercedes Benz USA. “The mbrace2 system solves the vehicle electronics life-cycle conundrum in a unique way, creating a truly networked vehicle that is always online, always upgradeable.”
Kevin Link, senior vice president of marketing for Hughes Telematics, which developed the technology for Mercedes, said vehicle owners will be able to download apps to their car as often as they do to their smartphone.
It’s nice to have the latest version of iTunes in your car. But this breakthrough has far more important benefits: remote software fixes on the car itself.
Today’s cars are like rolling computers. Some vehicles have nearly 100 million lines of software code inside, affecting 70 to 100 electronic control units that run everything from the power steering and anti-lock brake systems to the heated seats and sliding moonroof. When something goes wrong with your car, increasingly it’s because of a software glitch rather than a mechanical malfunction or an electrical short.
The number of software-related recalls reported to the U.S. government has grown sharply in the past decade: about 10 percent of all recalls, up from 1 percent 10 years ago. Since 2002, software-related recalls have affected 4.5 million vehicles and cost carmakers more than $200 million. Hughes Telematics anticipates huge cost savings for both dealers and consumers if repairs can be done remotely, over-the-air.
“The George Jetson era is here,” said Link. “This is the first step to having your car online, enhancing and repairing itself without inconveniencing yourself at the dealer.”