GM CEO Mary Barra Promises Over-The-Air Updates for Cars by 2020

A new electrical architecture will make these updates possible, Barra said.

Mary Barra
Paul Sancya—AP

Over-the-air (OTA) software updates allow automakers to make continual changes and tweaks without waiting for mid-cycle refreshes, or forcing customers to bring their cars into dealerships. In the automotive realm, these kinds of systems were pioneered by Tesla; now, General Motors may be the next automaker to jump on the OTA bandwagon. OTA updates will be available "before 2020," CEO Mary Barra recently told Automotive News

GM already updates its OnStar telematics system this way, but it doesn't use OTA updates for any vehicle systems, as Tesla and arch-rival Ford do.

OTA updates will be made possible by a new electrical architecture, Barra said during a conference call to discuss GM's second-quarter earnings. The new architecture will also be the basis for "a whole new generation of infotainment systems," Barra said.

The Chevrolet Bolt EV's infotainment system can already accept OTA updates, but GM hasn't activated that capability beyond OnStar, a spokesperson told Automotive News. The spokesperson also noted that the OTA initiative is separate from a partnership with telematics company Globetouch Inc., which announced Monday that it will integrate its "open platform GControl" with OnStar.

OTA updates will add to an already-considerable flow of data through GM cars, including OnStar and the WiFi hotspots installed in most new GM vehicles. Data has become such a big deal that GM recently hired A. Charles Thomas for a new position called "chief data officer." Thomas will be responsible for managing data science and analytics.

During the conference call, Barra said GM is already "seeing monetization through OnStar" and that the automaker hopes to leverage data for other projects, including business-to-business opportunities. Like tech companies and retailers before them, automakers are realizing that consumer data can be a valuable resource. But to exploit that resource, companies will have to get people used to the idea of having their driving data monitored.