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Ford's Mustang Mach-E begins 'new era' of software updates

The Ford vehicle you buy will change as the carmaker delivers changes wirelessly to the vehicle's electronics.

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Ford's 2021 Mustang Mach-E

Ford's 2021 Mustang Mach-E

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Ford's Mustang Mach-E electric SUV marks a major change for the carmaker, a wireless software update delivery system that will change a vehicle's abilities long after it rolls off the lot. That'll begin with the updates to Mustang's infotainment system for things like playing music and showing maps, but in future models, it will extend to just about everything electronic in the car.

These over-the-air (OTA) updates have been a standard feature in Tesla vehicles for years, but most of the auto industry has yet to catch up. Ford's update system, though, will help move the carmaker to a time when it can improve customers' driving experience, Ford Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington said.

"The launch of the Mustang Mach-E is the beginning of a new era for us," Washington said in an interview Monday at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, California. "I'm old enough to remember when computers weren't networked. Now the experience is very different. The automobile is going through that same transformation."

Software updates can be both a boon and a bane. It's great that computer makers can deliver new features, fix bugs and close security holes. But it's a pain that we sometimes must learn anew how to use technology we thought we'd mastered -- especially when older hardware can struggle to handle steadily heftier software burdens. But as computing technology spreads ever farther into our lives, updates overall are essential, especially for cars where safety and security are life-and-death matters.

Tesla's approach is sophisticated enough to let it correct steering details, improve battery safety, shorten emergency braking distances and tweak suspension behavior. Plenty of cars can be updated, but that often requires a trip to a dealer. OTA updates happen transparently with home Wi-Fi or the same mobile networks phones use.

OTA updates, starting with infotainment

Ford's OTA updates in the 2021 Mustang Mach-E begins with infotainment systems, Washington said. It doesn't reach into the systems controlling how the Mustang Mach-E starts, stops or steers.

Ford CTO Ken Washington

Ford CTO Ken Washington

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"All safety critical functions are air-gapped from network functions," meaning that the computer systems are physically isolated to eliminate tampering, he said.

But Ford will change that as it improves security arriving in models after the Mustang Mach-E. "We're taking more time to develop that next iteration [when] you can protect the flow of information into any safety critical module," Washington said.

Eventually, OTA updates will touch anything digital in the car, he added.

"Today it's focused on the infotainment stack, but we've got in development the capability to update other parts of the vehicle," Washington said. "It's bumper-to-bumper. The modules in the vehicle -- they're all available to be updated."

And in one way Ford expects to improve on Tesla's approach. It'll be able to download and install updates in the background, then rapidly switch to them at some point afterward. That contrasts to Tesla's updates, which often render the car unusable for 25 minutes or so.

Brains on wheels

Software updates also become more important as computing brains spread throughout cars. 

We're familiar with some aspects that are visible -- the infotainment delivered on the Mustang Mach-E's huge 15.5-inch screen, its Co-Pilot 360 safety system for lane centering and collision avoidance, its phone-based Bluetooth automatic unlocking ability, its Sync system for integrating with smartphones.

The reality of automotive technology is that computers spread much more deeply than that. Computers optimize the timing of transmission and combustion in conventional cars and battery pack cooling and management for electric vehicles like the Mustang Mach-E.

"There's a ton of technology in this vehicle," he said.

Originally published Nov. 19, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:54 a.m.: Adds detail about the bumper-to-bumper reach of Ford's update technology.