The days of owning an automobile that’s not perpetually connected to various digital networks are quickly coming to a close. On Wednesday, Ford announced most of its redesigned vehicles in the U.S. with have over-the-air update capability after 2020. The automaker is framing this as a way to “repair” your vehicle at home and offer new features after a model has already been purchased.
“Nobody wants to feel like they’re missing out on great features right after spending their hard-earned money on a new vehicle — that’s where our over-the-air updates can help,” said Don Butler, executive director of Ford’s connected services. “We can now help improve your vehicle’s capability, quality and overall driving experience while you’re sleeping.”
While the prospects of giving auto manufacturers remote access to your car are vast, it’s also a double-edged sword. Over-the-air updates would undoubtedly save you a trip to the service center in the event of a code-based recall but it also opens vehicle’s up to privacy concerns and gives automakers new avenues for business.
Those new features will be locked behind a paywall — which is fine until you’ve heard some of the ways automakers are considering handling this. Several companies have discussed the possibility of simply building cars with items installed that have to be unlocked via the center console. That means more standard content on base models … but non-base features will be sold off piecemeal through the internet, despite already being equipped inside the car.
BMW really started scaring us after showing how willing it was to incorporate this practice with lofty subscription fees for Apple CarPlay — rather than simply providing it as standard equipment. Other automakers are examining similar ways to leverage connectivity. Some of them are even trying to implement gaming aspects onto their user interfaces to try and keep customers more engaged with their connectivity services. There’s a real potential for manufacturers to enact some grimy business practices here while likewise offering some neat new features.
Let’s also not forget that data acquisition is becoming increasingly important to automakers and connectivity gives them a direct, always-on pipeline to yours. We can’t say that’s why Blue Oval sunk millions into building new data centers, but managing and selling your information seems a likely prospect. If so, most will probably have no idea its happening.
Some updates will be virtually invisible to customers, enabled by an innovative platform that installs much of the new software in the background. This new platform keeps current software running until the new version is ready for activation — something that no other vehicle, or even some popular smartphones, can do today.
“Computer updates that require reboots seem to come at the most inconvenient times, which is why we wanted to make our updates as invisible to customers as possible,” says Butler.
As unsettling as invisible updates sound, Ford said there will be a way to track them. It plans on issuing software update details as they become available and notifications after they’ve been installed. Customers will also be able to schedule larger updates at times when the vehicle will be sitting idle or have the car automatically install whatever is next.
This is all coming via Sync 4, which Automotive News reported will also incorporate some new hardware. An 8-inch touch screen will be standard, but customers can upgrade to a 12 or 15.5-inch screen if they’d like. While we feel that a robust and easy-to-use UX always trump screen size, having larger options is a smart move. While undoubtedly more distracting, big screens are the kind of thing that customers will splurge on — and the biggest from Ford offers more features, like a toolbar at the bottom that keeps your favorite apps at the ready.
Fortunately, Sync 4 is also designed to minimize driver distractions by having improved voice recognition and a slicker visual interface. “With this new fourth-generation technology, we’ve evolved Sync into an intelligent, voice activated, in-vehicle digital assistant,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s product development chief, explained.
Ford expects the first over-the-air updates to take place several months after Sync 4 debuts. Those will reportedly focus on convenience, entertainment, quality and new features ($$$). While the automaker discussed the possibility of remote repairs using over-the-air updates extensively, Automotive News claimed there was no official plan in place to use the system to address recalls. We imagine that’ll be subject to change once there’s a situation that calls for it.