Volkswagen is now implementing one of the Tesla features — if we want to call it that — that owners have long loved and deemed a top priority in any future car: over-the-air software updates that can routinely improve your car. Even understanding the benefit and seeing some of the updates roll out, I was a bit surprised 5 years ago when we started doing EV driver surveys and EV owners ranked over-the-air updates as such a critical feature. As a Tesla owner for the past few years, I am much more aware of how big of a deal is. I can’t say how many times my car has received significant improvements via an over-the-air (OTA) update. My Tesla Model 3 is significantly better today than when I bought it two years ago, with far better infotainment, better performance, a variety of new features, much better semi-autonomous driving features, and a small range boost at one point (though, max range is lower than when I bought it due to natural battery degradation).
Volkswagen decided a few years ago — or more than a few years ago — that it needed to make a dramatic shift, a fundamental shift, in its vision of a car. The company acknowledged that it needed to not only transform from a fossil-fuel-vehicle company to an electric-vehicle company, but also needed to become a technology company that built computers on wheels. After years of work preparing for this week, Volkswagen cars are now getting OTA updates themselves. In particular, its ID models — the ID.3, ID.4, and ID.4 GTX — are getting the updates.
The first round of updates include “optimised surroundings recognition, more intuitive operability of the infotainment system, and other new features.” More specifically, here’s what we know: “Some of the new functions affect the ID. Light, a light strip at the bottom of the windscreen. It now gives the driver information that can provide intuitive support for energy-saving driving, and when driving with the automatic distance control system ‘Active Cruise Control’ (ACC). Image processing has also been improved for the multifunction camera, allowing it to recognise motorcycles and other road users even more swiftly. The same applies when driving in the dark. If installed, dynamic main beam control allows even more precise headlight regulation. The graphics on the central infotainment display become calmer and clearer, with more intuitive operation – showing how Volkswagen reacts to feedback from the first ID. customers.”
In typical software fashion, the company has used rolling updates and testing before going public. “The updates had previously only been available as part of a test phase for customers who had registered with the ‘ID. First Movers Club’. The ‘ID. Software 2.3’ offers new functions and optimises existing ones. Networking the entire ID. fleet will allow Volkswagen to lay the foundation for new, customer-oriented business models. Thus far, Volkswagen remains the only high-volume manufacturer to provide this technology for its customers.”
Updates are supposed to roll out every 12 weeks now. Notably, this is not all altruism and making the cars better for owners. Volkswagen also wants to make money via this updates with a variety of new features that customers can pay for. “Volkswagen is also aiming to generate increased revenue during the usage phase with new, data-based business models — for services and functions that the customer can now order as required, whenever these are needed. For example, this could be Travel Assist or improved battery performance for long journeys, or even automated driving at a later point in time. Volkswagen sees the potential to generate hundreds of millions in additional revenue over the next few years.” Sounds reasonable.
So, make that Tesla, Volkswagen, XPeng, and Nio that can make money on new services and featured offered through over-the-air software updates (the latter two in China, but also now entering Europe). Ford also has its toes in the OTA update world, with Mustang Mach-E owners getting improved semi-autonomous driving features through such updates. GM has been talking about OTA updates for the Chevy Bolt since at least 2016, and Cadillac was the GM brand that started actually getting them in 2019. True — not all software updates are equal. There is indeed notable differentiation in the quality and depth of software updates. Nonetheless, the trajectory is clear: more and more, new electric cars will be able to get upgrades through the cloud.