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Want to improve your car? A download could be the answer

5 minutes

Apps aren't just for your phone any more: car manufacturers have started to embrace downloadable tech to make driving even better, safer and more enjoyable.

  • The performance of some new cars can be improved with a download
  • There’s already software that secures your car against cyber attacks
  • You can sync your smartphone up to your car’s infotainment system

Imagine going down to your car in the morning and finding it had become faster, overnight. Well, that’s now a reality, thanks to the upgrades that can be downloaded onto smart connected cars. For example, recent free over-the-air software updates made the Tesla Model S quicker.

An upgrade like this qualifies as a performance modification, so would have to be declared to your car insurance provider. But, beyond Tesla’s latest car technology, apps can make the driving experience far better, too.

The right mapping app could guide you to a parking space outside a restaurant that you found on the car's recommendation. Most manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, put these apps as standard on their cars’ infotainment systems, with regular updates available for download. Volkswagen are also working on the next step of software downloads.

‘We’re developing technology that may allow automatic updates to vehicle’s infotainment systems in future products, possibly starting with the all-new electric I.D. range of cars,’ a spokesperson revealed. ‘The technology could result in a car that will always be online, ready for updates.’

On top of that, software updates are making cars safer, too. Following Hurricane Urma in Florida, Tesla ‘flipped a switch’ that changed the software on its cars to extend their ranges, allowing owners to flee the catastrophe to safety.

Smarter software, safer systems

Modern cars contain software that manages everything from the engine and braking to collision detection and entertainment. Over-the-air updates could make these systems safer.

With GM and Bosch already working on rolling out over-the-air updates, it's estimated that 180 million cars will be built with this ability in the next five years. Currently updates can be delivered via a USB drive on some cars such as Kia vehicles, but over-the-air updates still have the upper hand: they can be installed on the car without driver input. 

One concern with wireless updates is that hackers could potentially affect the car's driving systems, leaving it undrivable or unsafe. However, thanks to deep levels of encryption this should be near impossible. A hardware security module, such as those developed by ESCRYPT, essentially acts as a software security guard, only letting recognised updates access certain systems.

‘Firmware over-the-air (FOTA) updates have many advantages for car manufacturers and owners, and are gaining wider acceptance,’ observes Thomas Stimm, Security Engineer at ESCRYPT (@ESCRYPT). ‘At the same time, the automotive industry is facing new IT security challenges, as data transfer over wireless networks attracts people who could try to steal information or take unauthorized control of vehicles.

‘To prevent this, every step of the FOTA update process must be secured, be it the generation, the delivery, or the performance.’

A car with a software problem might have meant a recall in the past; now it could simply be updated over the air so it's road safe. 

A drive enhanced by mobile apps

BMW already offers its M Laptimer App that records data such as GPS position, speed, acceleration, steering angle, gears and much more to show you how you're driving – potentially guiding you to become better.

What about an app on your phone that you want downloaded to your car? Thanks to products such as SmartDeviceLink (SDL), you can now connect your smartphone to your car’s infotainment system, allowing you to view the apps on the vehicle’s screen.

If you’re an electric car owner, the Jaguar Land Rover Public Charging app will guide you to over 70,000 premium charging locations in the UK; if you’re not, you can try the company's GO I-PACE app to test out how the electric car would change your life in fuel savings and beyond.

A software soup-up for your car’s performance

There are ways to enhance your car beyond software upgrades and car accessories.

Hardware chipping and remapping your car's Electronic Control Unit (ECU) is one way to enhance performance or improve fuel economy. An ECU monitors your engine and controls certain elements – such as ignition timing, air and fuel ratios, as well as turbocharging boost pressure – to maintain your car’s performance. Essentially, it’s the car’s brain.

The simplest way is to swap out your car's ECU chip for a modified one. These systems are often limited by manufacturers to meet production planning objectives, so replacing it can improve performance significantly.

The new chip may speed up ignition and increase the fuel levels in the engine, boosting acceleration. By swapping or updating the software in the chip behind these systems, you can enhance your car without removing a single screw of the physical engine. 

Chipping can also save money by improving the efficiency of a turbo diesel engine. In fact, you can save 10-16% on fuel thanks to more efficient torque power and rev ranges.

'Is there a downside?’ you ask. Some people worry about affecting the car's longevity but using a reputable chipping company should allay those fears. There are a number of specialist chipping companies, the market leaders being Superchips and RaceChip. The cost depends on the make and model of your car, but expect to pay a few hundred pounds. Consider paying for a test as well, so that you can make sure your car works properly with the chip. 

If you do decide to go down the chipping or remapping route, make sure you declare it to your insurer. There may also be age restrictions if you want to buy insurance.

So,if you want to improve your car's performance, fuel economy, security or general drive experience, now you can – without having to replace parts or tinker with the engine.