When the Volkswagon diesel emission scandal erupted, people wondered- why doesn’t VW just download new software into its cars and fix the problem? In the era where consumers can download phone apps in seconds, as well as new phone software while they sleep, this is a logical question. By its own admission, VW deliberately programmed its vehicles to run differently during emission testing compared with how cars were allowed to run on the road. Scandal erupted when it was discovered that VW diesel cars that had excellent emissions ratings during testing, were in fact, emitting up to 40 times more pollutants under road conditions.
So why couldn’t VW just download new software and declare the problem solved? Put simply, in many vehicles, the compromised software was hiding a hardware problem. (Software engineers might relate to this) Installing compliant software would simply expose the higher emissions. Completely correcting the problem required not just installing compliant software, but making real adjustments to the engine and exhaust system so they produce less pollution.
The cost to VW has been astronomical – close to $15B ($14.7B based on the latest ruling). Approximately $10B will go toward compensating owners of cars with the offending VW diesel engines, while $2.7B will go towards projects to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and $2B is slated toward green energy projects. On top of this, VW lost tens of billions in market value which it has not fully recovered almost a year later.
Car manufacturers are already familiar with the high cost of recalls and fixes. The VW scenario is an extreme case of needing to fix a problem quickly with a high volume of cars. That, and the cost of the VW disaster, are catalysts for designing even greater software control over engine parameters, and finding more efficient ways to distribute new software updates to car owners.
There is currently plenty of opportunity for improvement. In the US, car manufacturers are legally prevented from operating dealerships in many states. Dealerships have shown their willingness to fight back against car manufacturers that want to a a direct relationship with owners, as evidenced by the numerous legal battles that newcomer Tesla is now waging. The result is that car fixes and recalls can take years to propagate through the entire system of arms-length relationships, with the loser being the consumer.
As the car industry becomes more software driven however, manufacturers and dealerships, as well as authorized service stations are all looking for faster ways to get consumers the latest functionality. Hence the intense, ongoing interest in software and firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) strategies. FOTA for the auto industry will require network solutions that can handle large volumes of software, integrate with global delivery models and handle billions of updates. It's a tall order, but one that content delivery networks are likely to play a role in. Already CDN's handle distributing software and firmware updates to millions of phones, TV’s and consumer appliances. Their capacity and flexibility will likely put them at the center of the car's software download evolution as well.