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Ford Cloud Clarifies Connectivity

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 19, 2015

Ford Motor Company is changing the car connectivity story with the launch of its Ford Service Delivery Network - in essence the Ford Cloud. The amazing thing about this announcement from Ford, which is working with Microsoft Azure along with a few other partners such as Accenture, is its focus on software updates and the fact that it comes from Ford - the original promoter of smartphone connectivity in cars.

 

To be clear, the focus on software updates for Ford initially will be dependent on thumb drives, smartphone-based updates or visits to dealers, but the message is important in the context of an industry coming to grips with keeping software up to date in cars. The average IT professional understands that where there is software there will be updates. Until recently it seemed that the automotive industry hadn't gotten that particular email message.

(As a side note - any car company introducing the Android OS into a dashboard will DEFINITELY need a software update capability. It is worth noting that Blackberry's QNX has mastered the art of delivering real-time operating system software capable of enduring for a decade or more - something learned from industries well beyond the orbit of consumer electronics.)

After the record-breaking recall rate of 2014 and the corresponding revelations of vehicle hacking vulnerability touching GM and BMW, the message is clear that all cars need the means to receive software updates and they need that capability today. If there were any remaining doubts, there is Tesla Motors to contend with. Tesla continues to run circles around the rest of the world's auto makers with its over-the-air software update capabilities.

More than the technical achievement of updating vehicle software - something GM has been doing with OnStar for many years - Tesla introduced the idea of automotive software updates to the masses. Tesla made the idea of software updates for cars not only socially acceptable but, in fact, an attractive point of differentiation.

The typical car maker has been hesitant to update software for a wide range of reasons including:

  • Actual architectural limitations of vehicles to receive or distribute updates over the vehicle network
  • Inability to guarantee/warranty/confirm the reception and installation of full software update payload
  • Dealer resistance to over-the-air updates that might take away opportunities to engage with customers
  • Security concerns
  • Customer acceptance

At long last, it appears, the downside of having cars on the road with old software has outweighed all of these concerns. In fact, the upside potential of over-the-air software updates only grows including:

  • The need to update security software code/algorithms/credentials
  • The need to update safety system algorithms (airbag deployment systems!)
  • Map updates
  • User interface updates
  • App updates
  • Enhancements or essential modifications to vehicle functions
  • Added vehicle functionality
  • Cost savings from warranty/recall exposure

Software updates are increasingly recognized as the silver bullet for justifying built-in vehicle connectivity. This is yet another reason why Ford's leadership position is so unusual since, aside from Ford's EVs and a few Lincoln's, Ford is still reliant on connected smartphones for its vehicle connectivity.

Ford's approach does reflect, though, ongoing challenges regarding wireless charges associated with software updates. Ford's current update regime sidesteps the high cost of wireless downloads in favor of USB, smartphone or Wi-Fi-based update delivery.

There are other issues to bear in mind. The software configuration from car to car is far more variable than most people realize, which requires significant back-end infrastructure to ensure that the correct update gets to the correct car at the correct time. This reality is also likely to complicate the LTE broadcast capability now being proposed by wireless carriers.
 

Satellites to the rescue?

I  was part of a panel discussion yesterday at Satellite 2015 in Washington, DC, where the prospect of satellite-based software updates for cars was discussed. While SiriusXM attempted three years ago to offer up its satellite infrastructure for software updates, the automotive industry declined the offer due to the limited capacity of the SiriusXM "pipe."

A new contender, Kymeta, has announced plans to deliver software updates to cars in partnership with IntelSat (with other satellite providers expected to participate in the future as well). Kymeta's solution may be a few years away from the market, but it is clear, thanks to Ford, that the automotive industry is now ready.

In time, software updates to cars will become routine. Ford's announcement is a big step in the direction of establishing software updates as a valuable service and a differentiating characteristic of Ford vehicles. And, besides, it just makes good sense.

Ford Cloud Clarifies Connectivity
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