One of my guilty pleasures during quarantine, has been going down the endless rabbit hole of car restoration videos on YouTube. Even though I can barely change a tire, I get endless satisfaction watching professionals and hobbyists revive dilapidated and forgotten cars – breathing new life into them and in many cases making them as good as new.
The internal combustion engine (ICE) is an astonishingly complex machine, yet these vehicles can continue running for decades if properly maintained or restored. More remarkable still is that until very recently, ICE cars were largely analog—only using simple semiconductors and transistors to regulate the engine and transmission for maximal efficiency, turn on the lights, and operate in-cabin comforts like the radio and electric windows.
The whole system simply operated according to the engineer’s design with only basic software involved, and no need for regular software updates. Cars of the early 2000s were clearly distinct from the smartphones that would soon be arriving in their drivers’ pockets.
Today, the race is on between global car manufacturers to develop a mass-market electric vehicle, capable of competing with entry-level ICE cars in terms of purchase price and performance (range). In parallel to this revolution in vehicle hardware, a second race is heating up—a race to see who can perfect over-the-air (OTA) software and firmware updates.
As vehicles are becoming electrified, they are also becoming heavily digitized, leading some to describe modern passenger vehicles as “smartphones on wheels.” This transformation is effectively demonstrated at the moment by the global shortage of computer chips and its impact on the automotive industry.
The intended purpose of OTA updates is, ironically, to extend the life of a new vehicle by improving it over time. Tesla has, for example, slightly extended the range of existing Tesla vehicles just by issuing a firmware OTA. Pretty handy, right?
But a reliance on software is a double-edged sword. It allows a device to improve over time, but it also makes that device dependent on continual and secure updates. We all know from experience what happens to smartphones once they stop receiving regular software updates or receive software updates that are not tailored to their hardware capabilities. They slow down, they get buggy, and most importantly they become increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.
The security breach of a smartphone compromises important personal data like bank details, social security numbers, location, etc. A security breach of a modern EV like the Tesla Model 3 or the Ford Mustang Mach-e could compromise all of that information in addition to your breaks, lane-keep assist, or adaptive cruise-control functionality. Is it just me or does rock-solid cybersecurity seem somewhat essential in a vehicle with partial or complete self-driving capabilities? Despite this, nowhere on Tesla’s or any other manufacturer’s website will you find any guarantee of long-term software updates for their vehicles.
You are lucky if you can get a smartphone to last for five years. By turning our cars into driving computers, are we saying goodbye to multi-decade clunkers? Are we effectively allowing manufacturers to decide when a car is ready to be retired or is no longer safe to drive? In a country where a quarter of vehicles are 16 years old or more, limits on future software updates could not only have major economic implications for owners, but also considerable environmental implications when it comes to end-of-life processing.
Disposal of electronics is already a global environmental crisis, and the disposal and recycling of key EV components like lithium-ion battery packs is already recognized as a significant impending challenge. Ensuring that EV hardware can last for as long as possible is essential for the long-term sustainability of transportation electrification.
Fortunately, there is an easy policy solution to this software challenge. If automobile manufacturers are going to embrace OTA technology in their vehicles, they ought to be required to guarantee software and security updates to a vehicle for the standard lifetime of the car. In the United States, that means 12 years. If manufacturers are not able to support a vehicle for that long, they should be upfront about that with customers.
For a truly sustainable future to materialize, everything must be built to last. There is no physical reason why well-built and well-maintained digital devices like modern cars, computers, and smartphones cannot last 12 or even 20 years, but their utility depends on companies supporting these products with secure and hardware-appropriate software updates. As cars become more like our computers, we should demand that auto manufacturers design vehicles to last for just as long as they used to.