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What is a remote software update and how does it affect your car?

TG explains the anti-aging formula for older motors

Published: 12 May 2023

We’re pretty familiar with remote updates on our mobile phones - when developers need to tweak the code to remove glitches and deploy a ‘patch’ to fix a security vulnerability... then persistently nag us to update our phones.

Since cars have more lines of code to create their software than is needed to power Facebook, car makers are implementing remote 'over-the-air' (OTA) updates to keep their vehicles fresh.

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What is a remote, 'over-the-air' update?

An update to your car's software uploaded wirelessly via a 4G SIM connection, removing the inconvenient need to go to the dealership and have them fiddle about with a dongle for an extortionate fee.

To initiate or check for updates, you'll have to go into the ‘Settings’ menu of the infotainment and have a mooch about, consult the manual, or ask a more tech-savvy mate/partner/offspring.

Like your phone, you might need to confirm an update, though sometimes the car will automatically make the decision as soon as the update is available. Sometimes it’s down to whether it’s an update for security reasons or tweaks to the infotainment.

Updates, eh? Like what?

Tesla is probably one of the most established car makers when it comes to OTA updates. At Halloween, every Tesla X driver can download a special feature, so the car plays a particular 'spooky' track, opens its door and flashes its lights, "dancing" in time to the beat.

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But Tesla is also known for more sensible updates, where optional features, such as the hotly debated Full-Self-Driving package, can be installed after the car has been purchased.

In February 2023, Kia and Hyundai released a remote update to four million vehicles at risk of being targeted by thieves, when a TikTok video showed how particular models could be stolen.

How long do they take?

How long a remote update takes depends on the number of updates, i.e. the size of the data packets being sent over the ether. The car will usually initiate updates overnight, but do yourself a favour and never accept an update if you’re on your way out. Ever.

How much do OTA updates cost?

Updates of features you’ve already purchased (which includes all that is standard on the car) will be free, unless you’re in a subscription model and you’ve come to the end of the complimentary sub period.

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Additional features deployed over-the-air will become more common and could offer the secondhand market some really interesting features. That is to say, if the previous owner didn’t enable a feature that you want to use, you may be able to pay to activate it, as the new owner. Tech to stop our cars dating quite so quickly is good news for residual values, and much cheaper than buying a brand new head unit.

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