MADISON, Wis. — Agree with Elon Musk or not, the one thing every car OEM secretly admires about Tesla is its EV’s ability to do over-the-air (OTA) software updates for the whole car.

Tesla doesn’t merely send software updates to a telematic unit inside a vehicle to update maps and apps and other software inside in-vehicle infotainment systems. It can directly send software patches to a relevant, individual ECU, for safety, security or feature upgrades.

Tesla OTA software updates (Source: www.teslarati.com)
Tesla OTA software updates (Source: www.teslarati.com)

No carmaker anywhere, except Tesla, has yet been able to pull this off.

After all, there is no such thing as “bug-free software,” observed Egil Juliussen, director of research for infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) for automotive at IHS Markit. For that reason alone, today’s software-rich vehicles should come with OTA capabilities to correct software errors. This corrective function is even more crucial for “connected vehicles,” Juliussen pointed out, in the event of an attacker exploiting software vulnerabilities to disable a car or harm passengers. When that happens, carmakers should be equipped to quickly update the vulnerable software to prevent further damages.

“Tesla is one exception. Its system architecture is built from the ground up to make OTA easier,” said Juliussen. “Most car OEMs don’t have that luxury. They have to figure out a way to make incremental changes.”

Surge in OTA suppliers, but…
Tier 1 and 2 suppliers are keenly aware of carmakers’ growing demand for OTA solutions. In parallel, software vendors experienced in providing OTA updates for the mobile industry have begun shifting focus to the automotive sector. They figured that connected cars are, after all, “smartphones on vehicles.”

Many of these OTA suppliers have been snatched up Tier 1 and 2 companies.

  • In early 2015, Harman International Industries acquired Israeli-based Red Bend Software, a provider of software management technology for connected devices, and OTA software and firmware upgrading services. Harman was later acquired by Samsung.
  • In 2016, Wind River — still a part of Intel — added the Arynga software product line to its automotive portfolio. Arynga, a provider of OTA update software for automotive solutions, was known for software-over-the-air (SOTA) and firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) update technologies.
  • Two weeks ago, Wind River revealed that Ford Motor Company is using its OTA update technology. Wind River boasted that “Wind River Edge Sync” technology “can provide differential updates that can minimize data update size, transmission time, and memory usage for updating vehicle software over the air.”
  • Last year, Delphi bought Michigan-based startup Movimento to integrate its OTA platform. Delphi’s goal is to help automakers collect and analyze car data to detect flaws, extend the reach of recalls, patch cybersecurity vulnerabilities and speed development of autonomous driving.
  • Here, a company developing automotive mapping and mobility services, has unveiled OTA Connect, which the company claims is an open-source solution designed to integrate into an automaker’s backend servers.

Other companies in the OTA platform market include Bosch, Continental, Airbiquity and ATS Advanced Telematic Systems.

Know vehicles’ network topology
All these moves illustrate the scramble among auto tech suppliers and OEMs in need of OTA. However, according to observation by Colin Bird-Martinez, a senior analyst with IHS Markit, most OTA efforts are about sending software updates to telematic units. None addresses ECU software updates for elements like air bags, power trains, body control or safety.

The reality is that OTA for the connected vehicle is a whole different kettle of fish compared to OTA for a smartphone.

To pull off automotive OTA [from the cloud to ECUs], said Bird-Martinez, “You need two things: deep knowledge in computing hardware and familiarities with a variety of in-vehicle network communication topology.”

Indeed, for software patches to be communicated directly to ECUs, an OTA vendor must be familiar with a variety of hardware units inside a vehicle. Bird-Martinez asked: “Does an ECU come with two memory banks so that when something goes with the software updates, it still has an older program in the other memory?”

He added, “Binaries tend to need more space.” While updated data could be compressed, an OTA vendor should still worry if a particular ECU to which it is sending a software patch has enough headroom in its on-chip memory.

And that’s not all. Bird-Martinez said that different ECUs are connected to different types of in-vehicle communication network. Such networks range from Controller Area Network (CAN), FlexRay, Local Interconnect Network (LIN) to Media-Oriented Systems Transport (MOST) and Ethernet. OTA platform suppliers need to know all the nuances of in-vehicle communication networks to effectively communicate software updates.

Ever heard of Excelfore?
Enter the world of Excelfore.

Although Excelfore is little known, the Fremont, Calif.-based company has a decade of experience developing protocol stacks for automotive in-vehicle networks. Those in the know respect Excelfore for its technical chops in understanding the complexities of in-vehicle networks.

Lately, Excelfore has been developing its own cloud-to-device OTA platform, called eSync.

The goal is to enable carmakers to send software updates from cloud to a sensor or ECU inside a vehicle. Mark Singer, director of marketing at Excelfore, told us, “Our expertise has grown out of a car to the cloud.”

Today, Excelfore’s eSync has four customers — three are “mainstream, established car OEMs” and “another is an automotive startup,” according to Singer. They are all already working on the “full eSync implementations in their vehicles.”

Excelfore’s yet unnamed customers aren’t just experimenting with eSync. They are deploying it in full production models, he stressed. Excelfore’s eSync OTA platform enables them to send software updates to five to 10 electronic devices inside their vehicles, said Singer. “But not all of the ECUs.”

Where does API sit?
The technology enabling Excelfore to send various car OEMs’ software updates directly from the eSync cloud platform to different electronics devices inside vehicles is a “Server-Client-Agent” architecture and API the company has created.

Excelfore Tesla data API
(Source: Excelfore)

An abstraction layer allows the “agent” — essentially a piece of code — to know specific characteristics of an end device in a vehicle, and to know how to talk to it. The device might be an airbag, a camera, a lidar or a body control unit, Singer said. Because “agents” provide a level of abstraction, very different end devices can present a consistent interface to the OTA platform.

Meanwhile, the “client” functions as the master of OTA. It sends queries to the “server” and identifies a vehicle while securely connected to the “server.”  

Opening up eSync
Excelfore earlier this year decided to open up eSync to an open trade association called eSync Alliance.

Why a trade association?

Singer said, “What colored our thinking was this: On one hand, there are many OTA startups, which Tier Ones and Tier Twos are gobbling up. But on the other, none of the major car OEMs are willing to pick one OTA platform. They aren’t going to invest in the OTA’s backend infrastructure and bearing the burden of supporting servers for the next 15 to 20 years if the OTA platform offers only partial solutions for the whole car software updates.”

Singer said, “The value of any communication link is measured by how many things can be connected to it. We see OTA as a data pipeline, whose value is determined by how many things — ECUs, sensors, etc. — the OTA can communicate with.”

Noting that nobody needs 30 different approaches to plumbing, Singer said, “We want the eSync Alliance to develop an industry standard interface, of which Excelfore’s eSynch could be a part.”

No conflict of interest?
But what’s the relationship between Excelfore and the eSync Alliance? Isn’t the alliance designed to give Excelfore an unfair edge?

Rick Kreifeldt, executive director of the eSync Alliance, told EE Times, “Excelfore is a member of the eSync Alliance Board and developed the original eSync technology. As we have opened up the APIs to other developers, Excelfore becomes one of the suppliers of eSync technology.” In sum, the eSync Alliance wants to be the hub for different ECU companies, OTA platform vendors and Tier Ones to come together and hash out API for the whole automotive industry.

Once the API is solidified, Kreifeldt reiterated, “An OEM could use Excelfore, another supplier, or even develop its own eSync Alliance-compliant solution. Since the technology is modular, an OEM could even mix and match with pieces from two different suppliers.”

As Singer explained, “If an airbag guy wants to write eSync Alliance-compliant agent software on its own, that’s great. He can also buy it from some other third-party developer. But if he wants us to write code, we at Excelfore can also do that.”

Singer added that five to six OTA vendors — presumably direct competitors to ExcelFore — are knocking on the eSync Alliance’s door. The only way for a trade association to develop a standard and move forward is to raise a tent big enough for all interested parties, he explained.

The eSync Alliance plans to develop a multi-vendor path to creating end-to-end secure OTA and data services (Source: eSynch Alliance)
The eSync Alliance plans to develop a multi-vendor path to creating end-to-end secure OTA and data services (Source: eSync Alliance)

Why OTA is important
“OTA applied to the whole car” should be a priority for the automotive industry, in Kreifeldt’s opinion. Autonomous vehicles might indeed be able to save people’s lives, but not without a reliable remedy to the software bugs that have generated so many vehicle recalls.

During our interview, Kreifeldt cited a series of software recalls in recent years. They include:

  • 2016: Nissan recalled 3.2 million vehicles due to an occupant detection malfunction in the airbag system
  • 2016: GM recalls 3.6 million vehicles because the airbag system goes into a diagnostic mode
  • 2017: Dodge recalls 1.25 million vehicles due to airbag sensor problems
  • The industry fix rate is 70% after three years. Combined, this means about 2.4 million vehicles with faulty airbags systems on the road next year.

Worse, many consumers, even when they’re aware of such recalls, leave the software unfixed. Quoting fix rates estimated by Stout Research, Kreifeldt noted:

  • An industry fix rate of 40% within first nine months of recall for vehicles less than 5 years old
  • 2018: GM Recalls 1 million over steering software error. Some 600,000 will still be on the road next summer
  • 2018: Honda recalls 232,000 due to rear view camera error, with 139,000 still on the road next summer
  • 2018: Toyota recalled 2.4 million hybrids due to a software glitch that causes stalling. 1.44 million will be on the road next summer.

Imagine how easily many of these software recalls could be handled, had an OEM put an OTA platform in place.

In a nutshell, OTA updates not only keep vehicle electronics current, but also save car owners time and OEMs money on software-based recalls.

For many car OEMs, the primary impetus of OTA updates is “cost savings,” said IHS Markit’s Juliussen. Cybersecurity is another reason that OTA must become a priority for connected vehicles, he added.

OTA becomes truly attractive to OEMs with the prospect of “functional OTA,” said Juliussen. Carmakers can add features via software upgrades after the sale, and boost revenue, Juliussen said.

Under a two-way OTA platform, vehicles could transmit diagnostic and operational data from onboard systems and components to the cloud, noted Kreifeldt. Presumably, that would alert car OEMs of a potential problem of a vehicle before it becomes a real problem.

Today, Tesla is using Red Bend (now Harman)’s OTA platform to communicate between the cloud and vehicles. But when it comes to sending software updates to the whole car, Tesla resort to its internally developed API.

The advantage of a standard API for OTA updates — such as that of eSync Alliance — should be obvious to OTA platform suppliers. “Many OTA vendors today have only one or two customers. Everyone is doing something proprietary, which is not growing their business,” said Juliussen. Even big OEMs like Ford and GM may find the standard API interesting because it will bring price competitiveness to OTA solutions.

For smaller OEMs, an API standard should be a godsend, as it will naturally make their “make-or-buy” decisions easier.

— Junko Yoshida, Global Co-Editor-In-Chief, AspenCore Media, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times