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What are automotive 'over-the-air' updates? A marketing professor explains

  • Written by Vivek Astvansh, Professor of Marketing and Data Science, Indiana University
What are automotive 'over-the-air' updates? A marketing professor explains

Whenever automakers discover that a vehicle has a defect[1] or does not comply with U.S. laws, they must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and mail a notice to each customer who owns or leases the affected vehicles. Automakers must also recall those cars, trucks or SUVs – which means they have to fix the defect across the entire fleet.

People with recalled vehicles usually have to schedule a visit to an authorized dealership, where a mechanic repairs the car.

But vehicles are increasingly high-tech contraptions. Although most recalls still require the replacement or repair of auto parts, such as air bags or brakes, a growing number of issues are resolved without any help from a mechanic.

All they require is an “over-the-air update[2].” That’s the technical term for what happens when you update any software program used by a device[3], whether’s it’s a smartphone or a sedan.

Over-the-air updates are especially common[4] for vehicles that run fully or partially on electricity instead of gasoline or another fuel[5]. These digital recalls require little or no effort. For example, Tesla regularly fixes[6] its cars by updating its software. Its drivers often don’t have to do a thing. In other cases, a Tesla owner simply has to tap[7] a few buttons on the car’s touchscreen.

According to the law, it doesn’t matter if safety-related fixes demand a software upgrade or a trip to the dealership. Either way, notifying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and all affected drivers is mandatory.

Why over-the-air updates matter

Electric vehicle sales nearly doubled[8] from about 300,000 in 2020 to more than 600,000 in 2021. EV sales rose another 76% in first quarter of 2022[9] even as sales of all new vehicles dropped by 15.7%.

U.S. EV sales could be on the verge of far more growth[10], which would make over-the-air updates increasingly common. But drivers[11] and investors[12] are raising an array of safety concerns that could put the brakes on the EV market’s expansion.

Serious problems have included electric vehicles failing to start[13], losing power[14] and catching fire because of battery defects[15].

Musk objects to the word ‘recall’

Tesla has pushed harder than its competitors[16] to rely primarily on over-the-air updates to fix problems with its electric vehicles. Its CEO, Elon Musk, has for years publicly questioned[17] the wisdom of calling over-the-air updates “recalls.”

A crumpled Tesla after a car crash
The government is investigating whether Tesla’s software is contributing to collisions. AP Photos/Florida Highway Patrol[18]

In some cases, Tesla has conducted over-the-air updates to resolve safety defects without notifying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Tesla owners[19] that a recall was underway.

Because that’s against the law[20], the agency has ordered Tesla to provide those details.

Tesla has used over-the-air updates to resolve, for example, issues with its windshield wipers[21] and seat belt chimes[22]. It has also used over-the-air updates[23] to address problems with[24] its partially automated driving systems[25]. Those features are the subject of a government investigation because of a spate of crashes with parked emergency vehicles[26] in which first responders were using warning signs, such as flashing lights or flares.


  1. ^ automakers discover that a vehicle has a defect (
  2. ^ over-the-air update (
  3. ^ update any software program used by a device (
  4. ^ especially common (
  5. ^ electricity instead of gasoline or another fuel (
  6. ^ Tesla regularly fixes (
  7. ^ Tesla owner simply has to tap (
  8. ^ Electric vehicle sales nearly doubled (
  9. ^ rose another 76% in first quarter of 2022 (
  10. ^ be on the verge of far more growth (
  11. ^ drivers (
  12. ^ investors (
  13. ^ electric vehicles failing to start (
  14. ^ losing power (
  15. ^ catching fire because of battery defects (
  16. ^ pushed harder than its competitors (
  17. ^ Elon Musk, has for years publicly questioned (
  18. ^ AP Photos/Florida Highway Patrol (
  19. ^ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Tesla owners (
  20. ^ against the law (
  21. ^ windshield wipers (
  22. ^ seat belt chimes (
  23. ^ over-the-air updates (
  24. ^ problems with (
  25. ^ automated driving systems (
  26. ^ crashes with parked emergency vehicles (

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