Director, Marketing Communications
Director, Marketing Communications

OTA Updates and the Software Defined Car

June 1, 2018 by Jason Lackey
Tesla Dashboard - Another Software Define Product
The Tesla Dashboard - Easy to Extend with OTA Updates

We have for the past few years been living in the age of SDx – software defined whatever. It is a tempting vision, one where software is what really matters and that hardware, the dirty phy layer, is just some sort of far away commodity thing that doesn’t really matter. Of course we all know that the reality is somewhat more nuanced. Hardware is important and matters deeply and arguably far more deeply than a lot of people give it credit for today.

Case in point – Microsoft’s cloud offering, Azure. Hardware doesn’t matter, right? It’s turtles all the way down until you get to the FPGAs accelerating that cloud like the Intel FPGAs behind the scenes at Azure. At Ixia, it’s the same. Software does a lot of things and is one of the ways in which we deliver better features and a better user experience, but good software can do so much more with top rate hardware, such as an Ixia Network Packet Broker, as this video illustrates. Think of it like a fast GPU for a gaming or mining rig – high performance hardware enables bigger things that software alone would struggle with.

Recently Tesla, a company that I am a big, big fan of, was able to do some neat things with OTA updates. In this case their Model 3, reviewed here by Car and Driver, got some tweaks to its ABS braking system that brought its 60-0 braking distance down from a longish 152 feet to a far better 133 feet, a useful 19’ improvement. While 19 feet may not seem that much, imagine some of the emergency braking close calls you have had. In those situations, did you have an extra 19 feet or would 19 feet make you part of the crumple zone?

As it turns out, Tesla has done a lot with software updates, adding features including hill assist, auto high beams, valet mode, perpendicular autopark, summon, better maps, autopilot and other really useful, valuable functionality.

This is a neat trick, one which has been used in the world of mobile phones going back to the days of FOTA (firmware over the air) and feature phones. Device manufacturers quickly learned that not only could they fix bugs with OTA updates, but they could also add features. They also learned that they could shorten their development cycles. Picture this – obviously you need to build hardware first. While you can do some things in parallel, ultimately the platform you put together will define what you can do with it. Back in the day, you needed to have everything that product was ever going to do all figured out with both hardware and software ready to go when the device shipped. Tested, tweaked, tuned – as good as it was ever going to get.

With OTA updates, you can pretty much ship a minimal viable product. With Tesla they needed all the necessary hardware in place, but a lot of time consuming software development and tweaking and tuning could be done later, after the product first ships. For example, ABS brakes – maybe you have time to get them to a “good enough” state, but covering all of the corner cases and getting those stopping distances down to 133 feet could take a while, but might very well be done by the time the car reaches the buyer or shortly thereafter.

Of course, all these neat software tricks need a place to live and where they live is on top of hardware. In the case of the Tesla vehicles I have driven, that hardware is world class indeed. Back in the day, electric cars were viewed as golf cart penalty boxes wobbling feebly around an energy starved dystopian future. The Tesla vision is more like silent rocket thrust, instant, torque laden and strong, hurling a luxury space capsule to a bright, energy rich, clean solar future.

Now, when’s the next update?