‘A Major Revolution:’ How Employees Are Preparing Ford for Vehicle Software Updates Over the Air

With the first set of over-the-air vehicle software updates going to customers in mid-March, Ford is already getting some practice rounds in.

So far, approximately 740 employees driving 2021 Ford F-150s and Mustang Mach-Es have received their first vehicle software update. It was a simple adjustment, enabling their vehicle’s enhanced central gateway to accept further content updates, but it’s a critical step that will help Ford soon deploy quality enhancements and new features to customers.

“Before we release this capability to millions, we want to test it on a smaller scale and get feedback to see if we’ve built the right experience for our customers,” said Aziz Makkiya, senior global product group owner for software updates and the Ford Early Access Program. “We have received great feedback that we are using to get it right for our customers.”

The onset of vehicle software updates is the dawn of a new era for the Blue Oval. They are an example of the continued modernization of Ford through new technology and importantly, they allow the company to modify vehicle features and regularly deliver new content and upgrades that will change its relationship with customers. Software updates also mark a radical departure from the way the company traditionally develops products and services.

“In the past, we would design and push products to customers, then wait three to six months for quality surveys,” said Makkiya. “We’re getting way ahead of that by getting feedback early on and making changes to meet customer needs, so this is a major revolution for Ford product development.”

Aziz Makkiya, senior global product group owner for software updates and the Ford Early Access Program

The revolution begins with Ford’s investment in the tech stack – a vehicle’s hardware and software layers including embedded modems. Importantly, Ford made the investment to enable updates for nearly all of a vehicle’s computer modules, which can be more than 80 modules for high-end models such as Lincolns.

And the company future-proofed the tech stack with added computing power and memory to accommodate new features during much of a vehicle’s life.

“Many people are aware that Tesla has enjoyed an advantage with legacy automakers in this space for years – but they only reach a small group of customers,” said Makkiya. “Ford’s approach is to lead mainstream introduction of new technology and that is how we are approaching software updates – an advantage we can now exploit compared to key competitors such as Toyota, VW and Hyundai who are moving slower with this technology.”

Thoughtfully handling our customers’ privacy
Even as Ford develops reliable ways to deliver digital software updates, the company continues to take data privacy seriously. Protecting customer privacy, through clear language and customer control, is very important to Ford. When someone buys a new Ford or Lincoln vehicle, our privacy disclosures describe what vehicle information is shared. In addition, customers who want to use FordPass connected services can choose to share additional data when they agree to the feature’s terms. The in-vehicle SYNC and FordPass settings also allow customers to review and change their data sharing preferences.

Ford expanded this customer control in 2019 by adding an airplane mode feature similar to smartphones. This feature, located in the SYNC touchscreen, allows a customer to turn off all connectivity and related data sharing, including software updates. 

“Tesla owners have to physically sign paperwork at one of their few brick-and-mortar stores or contact a call center to change their data sharing preferences – Ford customers can simply make changes in the SYNC Settings menu,” says Makkiya. 

Rapid learning
Even Ford’s initial small-scale deployment to employee vehicles has yielded important insights, leading Ford to tweak how people are notified about the type of updates they receive. Many employees, for example, didn’t even know they got an update until they opened FordPass and received an alert explaining what happened.

As a result, Makkiya and his team identified this as an area to improve and will work to adjust messaging to make sure users get a more noticeable popup in their SYNC screen when they start their vehicles, with clear language that explains the content of the update.

To ensure deployment of these updates is successful, Makkiya stressed that it needs to be tested with real customers. “If you consider it from a design thinking perspective, you want to come up with an idea, prototype it, build it and engage customers post-build to see what works and what can be improved,” he said. “Then you get to iterate quickly, test it again and, if successful, deploy it to thousands of customers.”

Safe Launch: Step-by-step Preparation for mass deployment
This strategy is what’s going to help Ford change the way customers interact with their vehicles. After sending updates to employee vehicles, Makkiya and his team will gradually increase the pool of recipients until they’re confident they can deploy the updates to hundreds of thousands of customers at once. Over time, Ford will deploy the updates to bigger groups at once as the team builds even more expertise.

As the next step in their process, Makkiya and his team will beta test the updates with 100 customers in mid-March before sending updates to larger groups of customers. They also are actively recruiting F-150 and Mustang Mach-E customers to enter an early access program, so they can receive updates and present their thoughts about the update experience as well as the products and services being delivered. The goal is to have 1,000 early access customers by July.

Even when an update is ready for deployment, Ford will continue to take a staggered approach throughout 2021. They will start with pushing updates to a few hundred vehicles and continue expanding the number, constantly monitoring progress until they are confident they can push the update to all customers.

“We want to follow this ‘safe launch’ process , because we’re working with brand new in-vehicle electrical architecture and new cloud capabilities,” said Makkiya. “We need to be close to the deployments and build confidence. Once we get better at it, we can streamline the process to push to wider groups of people at once.”

In addition to modernizing the way Ford does business, these updates will enable Ford to accomplish another key goal: Treat customers like family. Makkiya emphasized that engaging with customers, listening to their opinions and using their insights to improve our products is key to ensuring Ford can meet their needs and lead the mainstream adoption of the technology.

“By leveraging software updates and our intimate understanding of what customers want, we can prioritize the development of content that delivers the most bang for our buck – content that customers actually want,” he said. “The sooner we understand what they want, the sooner we can build the right product and experience for them, and then leverage updates to quickly push these features and services out as fast as possible.”

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So What’s in a Software Update?

Most people are already familiar with software updates sent over the air. In fact, if you own a smartphone, chances are you’ve experienced many of them already – every time you get pinged to download the latest version of Android or iOS.

That same technology is what Ford is bringing to its connected vehicles. Software updates allow Ford to remotely change embedded vehicle code or modules, enabling the company to wirelessly send bug fixes, performance upgrades and even entirely new features that customers can download directly to their vehicle. The idea is that just as your smartphone gets better with new updates, your vehicle also will get better over time.

While Ford is no stranger to changing embedded code in its vehicles, doing so has traditionally required customers to bring their vehicle in to a dealer for service. With the new vehicle software updates that Ford is planning to deploy, it can send these upgrades to customers even if they leave their vehicle parked at home. More convenience. Less hassle. And a closer relationship between Ford and its customers.