TOKYO -- Toyota Motor and Nissan Motor are rolling out new connected vehicles with software that can be updated remotely, letting drivers access the latest features and performance improvements without having to buy a new model.
Toyota will provide such "over-the-air" updates for the new Teammate driver assistance system in the 2021 Lexus LS, which will allow for hands-off driving on the highway. Similar technology will be included with other models in the future.
Over-the-air updates can improve automated driving functions, such as the timing and speed of passing and lane changes, as well as fix software bugs in a timely manner. Eventually, updates could give vehicles a higher level of self-driving capability.
Tesla has employed this technology since 2012 to change and improve major functions, including braking distance and battery range. But Japanese automakers have used it only in limited contexts, such as updating maps in navigation systems.
Remote updates are sent to the car directly, with no need for a contract with an internet service provider. But users of connected cars typically pay the automaker a recurring service fee, and the Lexus LS likely will follow this subscription model.
Nissan will provide remote updates for the Ariya, an electric crossover sport utility vehicle coming out this year. These are expected to include additions and adjustments to driving modes that improve the responsiveness of the steering wheel or reduce power consumption.
Other automakers are adopting over-the-air technology, including Volkswagen and Ford Motor with models that hit the streets in 2020. General Motors plans to make all its new vehicles over-the-air compatible by 2023.
Any updates to safety-related functionality require approval by regulators in the country where the vehicle is sold. While autonomous-driving rules differ among countries, over-the-air updates make it easier to send different versions that comply with each market's requirements.
Toyota and Nissan eventually may tap software updates as a revenue source.
All Tesla cars shipped since spring 2019 are capable of some autonomous-driving features, but users need to spend an additional fee -- currently $10,000 -- to unlock them. This represents a major shift from the traditional model of prices based purely on a vehicle's specifications at the time it is shipped.
As many elements in the performance of electric vehicles are controlled electronically, software will become an increasingly important selling point as EVs grow more popular. That has the potential to transform an auto production system focused on hardware.
Toyota launched a software development company in Japan in 2018 and has been hiring engineers. Volkswagen said last year it will invest 27 billion euros ($32.5 billion) in software and digitalization through 2025.
Other parts of the supply chain will need to help keep automotive software secure. Auto parts maker Denso plans to expand its team of software developers by 30% from 2019 levels to 12,000 by 2025.