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OTA updates in cars – what are over-the-air updates?

Over-the-air updates allow us to update our cars just like smartphones update their software – with new wireless downloads

A woman in a white dress touching a car infotainment screen

What is an OTA?

An over-the-air update (OTA) is a type of software download that takes place over a cellular network or Wi-Fi connection and is delivered remotely to your connected car.

This is much like the way your iPhone updates overnight and you wake up to a brand-new iOS with new features and bug fixes.

In our vehicles, these OTA updates come directly from the manufacturer and include system upgrades and fixes for powertrain systems.

This can include upgrades for brakes, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and even electric vehicle (EVs) upgrades for charging and mile range.

How do OTA updates work?

OTA updates are downloaded automatically in the background while the car is in use and connected to Wi-Fi or a cellular network.

If you’ve been driving your car and it’s ready to update, you’ll likely see a message on the car’s infotainment system when the ignition is switched off that asks if you want to install a new update.

While most manufacturers claim their updates can be completed in minutes, some might need overnight to finish. If you’re driving an electric car, it’s a good idea to plug it in and charge up while the update takes place.

The car will need to be parked to complete updating, and some EVs require at least 50% battery power.

A woman checking her phone while charging an electric car

SOTA updates vs. FOTA updates

There are two different types of OTA updates that might take place in your car – software over-the-air (SOTA) updates and firmware over-the-air (FOTA) updates.

SOTA updates

SOTA updates are currently more popular than FOTA, as fewer cars can perform FOTA updates.

These software updates are for things like fixing bugs, maintaining vehicles, and improving them.

They’re usually non-safety-related fixes and can apply to any software that controls physical parts in your car.

You’ll mainly find these updates cover two primary categories: infotainment and driving control.

Car safety systems that are saving lives

FOTA updates

FOTA updates are more powerful than SOTA updates as these address the firmware in the car.

Typically, you’ll see these kinds of updates in higher-end cars as the technology is more advanced.

FOTAs are more common in EVs and need a lot of power, memory, a fast connection, and a tough cybersecurity system.

Why does my car need OTA updates?

Our cars are becoming more and more intuitive, with intelligent tech that helps with the smooth running of the car and impressive features. This means that throughout the car's lifespan, regular software and firmware updates will be needed.

Taking your car for a service each time it needs an update would become time-consuming and inconvenient – not to mention expensive. OTA updates allow the car to be updated with little effort, right on your doorstep.

As well, keeping up with your car’s OTA updates can stop your car depreciating as much over time and reduce the need for recalls.

Leaving your car without necessary updates can put you in danger of cyber-attacks, and means your car could become sluggish and inefficient. Making car updates easier means that as drivers, we’re more likely to keep on top of things.

OTA updates also mean that bugs and other issues can be solved quickly, without the need for recalling the vehicle.

All things considered, OTA updates are time- and money-savers in the long run.

How do connected cars work?

If your car has an infotainment system, it can likely receive OTA updates. Just like with your smartphone or laptop, updates are downloaded remotely into your connected vehicle.

Different car manufacturers are capable of different levels of OTA updates, with EV manufacturers like Tesla taking the lead on FOTAs.

BMW OTA updates

  • BMW offers OTA software updates for its infotainment systems, adding new features and upgrading those already in use.

Nissan OTA updates

  • Nissan uses its NissanConnect system to update the car’s infotainment setup.

Audi OTA updates

  • Audi, specifically the Audi e-Tron, also offers OTA updates for its map system.

Mercedes-Benz OTA updates

  • Mercedes currently updates its infotainment and maps system around every three months, with plans in the works for an all-new software set-up for 2024 models. The new Mercedes-Benz EQS is the first model to offer this feature.

Ford OTA updates

  • Ford has been fitting its models with OTA software since 2020, including the popular Mustang Mach-E.

Hyundai OTA updates

  • There are a few models that currently offer OTA updates in the Hyundai line-up. This includes the Hyundai Ioniq and Sonata.

Jaguar/Land Rover OTA updates

  • Jaguar/Land Rover provides updates to its cars to keep on top of infotainment systems and ensure optimised charging capabilities in EVs.

Honda OTA updates

  • The HondaLink system allows some Honda cars to receive OTA updates, including upgrades to CarPlay and map functions.

Are OTA updates safe?

While you might be nervous to accept updates for something as expensive as your car without visiting a garage or the manufacturer, OTAs are designed to be safe and secure to download.

Encryption technologies protect OTA updates from data hacking, and there’s no chance your car will be spying on you either – EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) are there to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Do OTA updates affect car insurance?

There are concerns that accepting OTA updates in your car can change the cost of your insurance, as some providers treat these updates as a modification.

The best thing to do is to get in touch with your insurer directly and ask what its policy is. As OTA updates are a developing situation, some policies haven’t been updated to accommodate them.

Not updating your car with the relevant OTAs can impact the security of the vehicle, which can also have a negative effect on your car insurance.

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