OTA Updates and Security Concerns: How to Put Your Customers at Ease

June 21, 2016  |  By John Jasper  |       

It isn’t that hard for you to come up with examples of big data breaches or vehicle hacks. Even worse, the average person could name off several without much effort. Thanks to plenty of media coverage and a public that's legitimately concerned about data security, this is the present reality.

Everyone is concerned about how connectivity affects their safety.

For the automotive industry, the particularly challenging part of all this is that it creates an environment where consumers don't really trust vehicle connectivity. After all, who wants an onboard technology that could leave a person stranded in the middle of nowhere, or at worst could cause their vehicle to crash at highway speeds? Any conveniences that would've been enjoyed are completely negated by the tremendous risks.

When it comes to over-the-air (OTA) updates, car owners are very likely going to be suspicious. Even though their computer, smartphone, and tablet automatically download and install updates all the time, having their car do the same thing could seem dangerous.

That's the big hurdle for consumer adoption of OTA vehicle updates. The automotive industry must overcome these fears. Car owners need reassurance that having such a feature won't leave them vulnerable to a malicious attack.

All of these objectives can be accomplished by focusing on using the best security measures possible. That's nothing shocking, but the way of accomplishing that goal could be a little unconventional compared to how things are done right now. Automakers should provide customers with the latest in OTA security measures, because that's the best way to quell fears of data breaches or sophisticated hacks.

Public Education

With vehicle technology evolving rapidly, automakers have to step in and fill the role of educating the public. Most people don't understand the various advancements being integrated into vehicles. Some of them don't trust monitoring devices, connectivity features, and other new innovations—and not just out of technophobia.  

More specifically, when it comes to OTA updates, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) should talk up the many advantages that come from using them. The average person has no idea what such a service would do for his or her life. Everyone, to a degree, is self-interested. Once consumers realize that OTA updates benefit them on a personal level, they'll be more supportive of the innovation.

This entails explaining that software updates, which are increasingly the cause of vehicle recalls, could be taken care of in short order. Nobody likes the idea of scheduling a service visit with the local car dealer, taking his or her vehicle there, and either dropping it off or waiting while a tech installs new software.

OTA updates eliminate all of that, so car owners can just keep living life without disruption. You probably are well aware of this advantage, but the average person likely hasn't even thought twice about it.

While educating the public about the conveniences of OTA updates, automakers can take the opportunity to also address any security concerns that people hold. Consumers can tell if a company isn't taking their worries seriously, so a sincere explanation of how the technology keeps people safe is necessary. OEMs need to make themselves available to field and answer questions, creating a dialog that could help spread the message about OTA update benefits further.

Evolving Concerns

It's impossible to predict exactly what will be necessary when it comes to connectivity security in the future. Yet cars stay on the road for well over a decade, presenting a unique problem.

Over time, new technologies are developed, different protocols are put into use, and hackers start using new methods. Technology moves quickly, with the situation able to transition in unforeseen ways.

Automakers must come to grips with this reality. Tesla is a good example of an OEM that has come up with a good solution. As a company, it remains fluid, adjusting to security risks and other problems as they come up. OTA updates are absolutely critical in Tesla's approach. Without the ability to push out updates and have them installed in cars in short order, the automaker wouldn't have been able to change so many things on the Model S nearly as often. If the company had taken a traditional approach, there would still be cars on the road without updates that have closed up security risks, boosted range, and added functions like Autopilot.

Tesla customers love the brand and their vehicles, which has been widely documented. Unlike traditional cars, they enjoy a vehicle that is constantly kept fresh and relevant. Even more important, it helps owners be more confident in the onboard security measures.

Outdated Hardware

When a new car model hits dealership showrooms, it already is loaded with outdated hardware. This includes not only the head unit, but also the onboard modem. That should be troubling, because it can create an opening for hackers.

It takes well over two years to develop the vehicle concept, engineer a production model, set up and begin manufacturing, and finally put those vehicles in consumers' hands. In that period of time, the hardware that was cutting-edge in the development process has become almost passé.

Speeding up the production process for vehicles isn't a practical solution to this problem. Still, something must be done, because an outdated onboard modem constitutes a risk that isn't easily remedied.

Smartphones as Modems

The solution to this problem of outdated vehicle modems is surprisingly simple. Car owners are almost always carrying around the latest in connectivity hardware and software, including excellent security protocols, thanks to smartphones.

Forty-four percent of US-based smartphone owners upgrade their device about every two years. That means that the technology in a person's pocket or purse is pretty up to date, because the production process for a mobile device isn't nearly as long as it is for a car.

Automakers are just barely starting to scratch the surface on the value of consumers' smartphones. While projecting certain apps to the vehicle head unit does provide a value, drivers can benefit even more by using their smartphone as the modem for their car.

This is where SmartLink comes in. It doesn't require much onboard equipment to run, plus it works well with a variety of iOS and Android smartphones. Instead of OTA updates going through the in-vehicle infotainment system, they would go through the phone.

Automakers can explain to consumers that by leveraging the power of their smartphone, security is improved. Once vehicle owners understand the reasoning, they'll be more accepting of this innovative approach. They also should have their fears of connectivity security put to rest. After all, they already use the same device to do online banking and other sensitive activities.


There's no turning back on OTA updates. In the not-too-distant future, they'll become mainstream in the automotive industry, just like they have for personal electronics. When that happens, thoroughly addressing the security concerns that consumers have will become completely necessary.

One of the best ways to put these fears to rest is to rely on the latest smartphones in order to stream updates to cars. Consumers will rightfully view this as an excellent solution to the problem, thanks to the up-to-date hardware and software included in the devices.


Topics: Connected Car - Security

John Jasper

John is the President and COO of Abalta Technologies. Abalta Technologies, Inc. is an emerging leader in the connected car landscape. Abalta has developed an innovative platform to enable car companies, automotive electronic firms and tier 1 suppliers to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the car’s infotainment system.

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