OTA updates allowing Ford to plan longer vehicle life cycles

Ford’s new 14th-generation F-150 might be around for longer than its predecessor thanks in part to its over-the-air (OTA) software updating system. This seemingly minor piece of technology is a major asset for the Blue Oval because it gives engineers and product planners the ability to improve a wide array of features wirelessly.

“It gives us that optionality. I think we now have the ability to make the vehicle physically better for the customer with these OTA updates, and that’s something that’s game-changing in terms of the business model,” Hau Thai-Tang, the company’s head of product development and purchasing, explained to Automotive News.

Ford inaugurated its over-the-air software updating system on the aforementioned F-150, which is starting to reach dealer lots across the nation, and the technology will later spread to other models, including the electric Mustang Mach-E. Engineers have already identified a few use cases for it. For example, the F-150 and the Mach-E can be purchased with an optional hands-free driving system named Active Drive Assist, and the feature will be beamed to early adopters when it’s ready in the third quarter of 2021. Muscle Cars & Trucks learned about 55 of the F-150’s systems can be adjusted wirelessly. Even its fuel economy could be improved via powertrain tweaks.

It helps that a majority of motorists are already familiar with the process. Whether you’re partial to Android or Apple, odds are your device performs over-the-air updates on an at least semi-regular basis. These updates often happen behind the scenes, preferably on Wi-Fi, and they bring patches, fixes and new-look interfaces.

Thai-Tang’s comments reaffirm the idea that technology is one of the most important measuring sticks in the automotive industry, even in the pickup segment. If owners can gain 10 horsepower or a pair of miles per gallon by tapping the “download” icon on their touchscreen, Ford might be able to get away with delaying sheet metal refreshes for longer than we’re used to. Viewed in this light, model years ultimately might not matter as much as the version of the software that’s running. It would mark a dramatic about-face for an industry that used to roll out new looks every single model year in a bid to one-up the competition and lure more buyers into showrooms. 

Spacing out redesigns is a strategy that can help Ford save money, but OTA technology can also allow car companies to make money. For example, and this is pure speculation, Ford could give buyers the option of customizing their car’s lighting signature, or of adding menus to its infotainment system. Its executives haven’t publicly announced plans to charge for features yet, but it’s something many of its peers are experimenting with.

Ford isn’t the only company that sees a huge amount of potential in OTA updates. Tesla immediately comes to mind; it hasn’t given the Model S a major makeover since the sedan went on sale in 2012, but it has updated it time and again with more power, more driving range, new infotainment features, and bug fixes. Chevrolet also reprogrammed the 2020 Corvette’s Body Control Module (BCM) with an over-the-air update in August 2020.

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