Electric vehicle maker Tesla pioneered OTA technology nearly a decade ago. When a Tesla is parked, software can update its powertrain and infotainment system wirelessly, like an update to a cellphone or laptop computer. In April, Tesla extended the driving range of its Model 3 with an OTA.
Luxury brands such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have used OTAs to update some systems, mostly infotainment. Jaguar Land Rover will offer OTAs next year on several models.
Automakers are moving to OTAs because consumers demand the convenience of having their vehicles updated without needing to schedule a service appointment at a dealership. OTA updates for safety and emissions systems also benefit automakers, says Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research.
"As more and more of the systems within the vehicle are dependent on software, it's going to be important to do updates in a timely manner," Abuelsamid told me. "Fiat Chrysler and others have had issues where they send out recall notices and it's up to the customers to come in" to the dealership.
"The [recall] regulations require them to hit a certain percentage of the fleet, and if they don't, they get fined," he said. "With an OTA, any OEM can push out the update and have it done properly, especially if it is a safety-critical system. It's important to get those done quickly."
As OTAs proliferate and owners can avoid the dealership, service departments will have fewer opportunities to inspect vehicles and recommend oil changes, tire rotations and general maintenance work. At the same time, the service drive will be less clogged with customers who show up without an appointment for safety-critical updates that require only new software.
That change, says Lee Harkins, CEO of the fixed ops consultancy M5 Management Systems, will open service bays and free technicians to do higher-profit repair work. But it also will require fixed ops directors to step up their marketing to win service business from independent providers, he adds.
"Dealers shoot themselves in the foot when a customer has to wait two hours for a 10-minute flash," Harkins told me at last month's Fixed Ops Journal Forum in Orlando. "It just reinforces in the customer's mind they were smart for leaving" the dealership.