Ford will start rolling out major over-the-air software updates to its vehicles this year

Technology

Ford is finally ready to start rolling out over-the-air (OTA) software updates to its vehicles at scale. While Tesla and other automakers have offered OTA updates for years, Ford only delivered its first software updates to select Ford F-150 and Mustang Mach-E customers this year. But the automaker says it’s prepared to rapidly increase the number of vehicles capable of receiving software updates, with the goal of producing 33 million vehicles with the capability by 2028.

Ford, which is fond of nonsensically attaching the phrase “Built Ford Tough” to its products, is playing it cool with the branding this time, simply calling its software updates “Ford Power Ups.” Over the past two months, Ford says over 100,000 F-150 and Mach-E customers have received their first OTA updates. And there will be more to come, including owners of the new Ford Bronco. The automaker is preparing a major update later this year that will include Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

With this new update, Ford owners can ask Alexa for a weather update, play music, find the nearest gas station, or provide directions to their favorite destinations. Over 700,000 vehicles in the US and Canada will be eligible for the Alexa update this year, with “millions” more added over the next few years, Ford said.

This isn’t exactly new for some Ford owners. Customers with Alexa accounts have been able to mirror the smart home assistant in their cars via their smartphones’ mobile connection and data processor since 2017. This new software update, though, will “embed” Alexa inside the car’s operating system, allowing for a more integrated user experience. And Ford is offering three years of Alexa complimentary, after which subscription fees will kick in.

“That experience is a decent one, though it’s not a north star, friction-free experience,” said Ned Curic, vice president of Amazon Alexa Automotive, of the earlier mobile version of Alexa. After the software update, Alexa will be “fully embedded” in Ford vehicles, which should make it a more “delightful experience” for customers, Curic added.

Ford isn’t completely embracing the Tesla ethos of offering quirky software updates like Mario Kart or fart sounds. But the automaker is pushing one update later this year that will allow customers to draw and sketch on their vehicle’s touchscreen. Ford said it is exploring ways for customers to share their in-car drawings on social media.

The updates won’t just apply to the vehicle’s infotainment system. Ford said it is building out the capability to push updates for up to 80 computer modules within the vehicle.

Not all the updates will come for free. BlueCruise, the automaker’s “hands free” highway driving assist system, will be available later this year to select F-150 and Mach-E customers who have purchased the relevant software updates.

It is certainly the case that legacy automakers have struggled to catch up to Tesla, which has long been the leader in shipping over-the-air updates to its customers to change everything from its Autopilot driver assistance system to the layout and look of its infotainment touchscreen. The idea that a car can be updated similarly to how Apple or Samsung can upgrade or repair the software on a smartphone has proven to be difficult and elusive for most car companies.

Most car dealers are wary of OTA updates for fear of being cut out of the lucrative service and maintenance process. Basically, if you can fix your car with an OTA update, you don’t need to take it in to the dealership as often. And that means less money for them.

Ford said that most of the updates will be “virtually invisible” to its customers and require “little to no action.” Others will require a reboot of the vehicle’s operating system that can be scheduled when it’s most convenient, like overnight.

“It’s a total reversal of the ownership model where vehicles used to just get older,” said Alex Purdy, head of business operations. “Now Fords will actually get better over time.”

Earlier this year, Ford announced that Google’s Android would be used to power the infotainment systems in “millions” of its cars starting in 2023. That, along with the Alexa software update that will begin rolling out later this year, is proof that Ford is committed to “giving our customers the choice to stick with the technologies and brands they’re already using and love or to try something new,” Purdy said.