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Over-the-air engine reprogramming: What it is and why you should care

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Jason Morgan is the editor of Fleet Equipment. He has more than 14 years of B2B journalism experience covering the likes of trucking and construction equipment, real estate, movies and craft beer industries.

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You’ve read the headline, so let’s get right down to business. The majority of heavy-duty engine manufacturers, namely Cummins, Detroit, International and Volvo Trucks, have rolled out over-the-air (OTA) engine reprogramming this year, giving you the power to update your 2017 model year and newer engines wherever your trucks are on the road (provided there is cellular coverage). What that means for you is that you will no longer have to schedule downtime to update engine software at a service location.

Insert the popular “cellphone app update” analogy here. OTA reprogramming lets you send an update to your truck when it’s off duty to update specific parameters, which vary depending on engine manufacturer. Once the engine is updated, it will operate accordingly. Let’s say your driver pulls into a terminal, runs out of hours or simply calls it a day. You can send an update to that truck, or group of trucks, and have the driver update your equipment during a time that it won’t interrupted her schedule.

“The industry average downtime for standard software downloads, requiring the truck to be at a service location and plugged in to a tool, is 2.3 days,” said Ash Makki, product marketing manager for Volvo Trucks North America. “Certain software updates related to the powertrain components are time-sensitive and must not be ignored until the next PM check. Volvo’s Remote Programming takes on average up to 20 minutes, so there’s no need to wait.”

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The first thing you should know is that there are two types of parameters that can be updated.

1. Software updates from the OEM

These updates can range from improving operational efficiency to reduce faults that are triggered by the engine. Like any software, it’s a good practice to keep your engines as up to date as possible.

“It is not uncommon for a new calibration to address issues that have been identified in the field,” explained Paula Watson, director of customer success and solution integration with Cummins. “By updating the engine in a timely manner, the fleet can potentially avoid unplanned downtime and engine issues that require service. By moving to an OTA process, we separate recalibration from the service event, and offer our customers a painless way to prevent issues, stay current and keep their trucks on the road. The ROI is going to be specific to a customer, but reducing unplanned downtime and eliminating unplanned service events will have a positive effect on TCO.”

Cummins, International and Volvo offer this ability, with Detroit planning to roll this out down the road.

“During a programming event, the over-the-air programming solution will allow customers to maintain all of their unique vehicle parameters,” said Andrew Dondlinger, Navistar’s vice president of connected services. “Currently the programming events are limited to calibration updates only, but it is likely that customer parameter updates will be introduced in the future.”

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2. Operational parameters that you can change

While many fleets set up their operational parameters at the time of purchase, things can change once the trucks hit the road. Operational parameter updates give you the flexibility to impact how the engine tackles its application.

“At the time of purchase, a customer can spec a truck with 100 to 200 adjustable parameters for their operation,” said Jason Krajewski, director of connectivity with Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA). “For OTA parameter updates, we’ve launched with four custom parameters that can be adjusted—max vehicle speed limit, cruise control set speed, idle shutdown timer and idle shutdown by ambient temp or temperature.

“From a value perspective, these are the parameters that are most frequently touched by fleet customers while trucks are in shops, and it really makes it a not-too-overwhelming set of parameters when we roll this out,” Krajewski continued. “We’re conscious of information overload, but plan on expanding these parameters as more customers become comfortable with not only the process of doing this but the way their drivers react to the service as well.”

Detroit and Volvo Trucks currently offer user-set parameters, while Cummins and International plan to roll out a similar feature down the road.

Click here for an at-a-glance look at how the over-the-air reprogramming process works for each of the engine manufacturers.

Why should you care?

Obviously, the aforementioned reduction in downtime and operational efficiency gains are the biggest ROI wins.

“Customers with over-the-air programming have the ability to update their vehicles within hours of the time the calibration is released,” Navistar’s Dondlinger explained. “Today, on average, without over-the-air programming, it takes a customer up to 180 days to complete a calibration at the dealer without any other service event. In some cases, if an engine calibration is not completed by a customer in a timely manner, it may increase the risk of a vehicle breakdown.”

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But there’s a catch with implementing OTA updates in your fleet. It’s the same catch that comes with any new technology: the OTA update process is different from the way you currently do things. It’ll be a change for you, for your service staff or provider and for your driver. And that’s going to be your biggest challenge in implementing OTA updates.

But fear not, fleet managers! This challenge is not a secret. The OEMs launching this into the market understand how this will disrupt your software update-related service in the short term and are ready and willing to walk you through it.

“Fleets have a way of doing business and then we introduce a new technology that changes it,” said Conal Deedy, director of connected vehicle services with Volvo Trucks. “When we first introduced Remote Diagnostics, we were asked why we were sending diagnostic information when none of the fleet’s other trucks had it. Now, fleets have gotten used to it and see what it can do. With OTA updates, we’ve heard that customers are interested. Some are embracing it more than others, but they have to change the way they do business to take advantage of it.”

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For Volvo’s part, a trained Volvo Action Service agent at Volvo’s Uptime Center—yes, a real person—will walk fleet personnel through the update. “The fleet manager will select the parameters that need to be updated and Volvo’s Uptime Center agent will initiate the update,” Makki explained.

“We definitely recognize that the technology right now is brand new and has a learning curve,” DTNA’s Krajewski said, noting that Detroit spends time working through its customers’ technology challenges through multiple touch points within the DTNA organization. Customers can ask questions through the Detroit Connect help desk, which is operated by the Detroit help center, and the Detroit Connect Portal is packed with self-help tips, tricks and FAQs. Customers also have the opportunity to communicate directly with Detroit project managers.

“Fleets are going to find the opportunities to implement it and they’re already thinking how much further they can take it,” Krajewski said. “We’re staying right there with them and our platform is in lockstep with how their minds are working.”

How to avoid a communication breakdown

The impact of over-the-air updates will be felt first and foremost by your drivers. Given that driver recruitment and retention is an important bullet point for every fleet, you want to make sure that the new equipment technology you’re implementing isn’t driving your drivers over to your competition. The process begins with communication. A good rule of thumb is to over-communicate what’s happening, why it’s happening and what the driver’s role in the process is.

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“Through testing with customers, we have experienced variability with how drivers accept this new process,” Cummins’ Watson began. “The messaging in-cab is clear, and many drivers take to it very comfortably, performing installs in a timely manner. In early testing, we also experienced some drivers who were less quick to accept the install. I think it’s important that fleets ensure their drivers are aware of the value of keeping trucks up to date and know that the fleet manager has visibility to any delays in the process.”

Watson also recommended that you remind your drivers that OTA updates aim to keep them on the road, as opposed to having them setting in a service center waiting room.

“Demonstrating the ease of updates, as well as how they minimally impact operations, are important points to increase driver adoption,” she said. “As we all become more comfortable with this new technology, I am confident that driver acceptance will curve similarly.”

“We strongly recommend that fleets let their drivers know of the parameter updates, as drivers will likely be curious as to why something changed,” DTNA’s Krajewski said. “It helps to soften the learning curve. A simple message via their messaging system letting the driver know that the cruise speed has been changed can go a long away and help make them aware of the update.”

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For the fleet perspective on over-the-air reprogramming, click here.

How often will engine updates be pushed from manufacturers?

The frequency of updates depends on the manufacturer, but the manufacturers in this story all expressed that it will depend on what’s needed. The OTA functionality is not likely to impact the frequency of updates long-term.

“With most of the industry, engine updates are only made available if there is an associated symptom, but may also include efficiency improvements as well. However, for users with over-the-air programming, all of these efficiencies are made available to the vehicle, regardless of whether or not a symptom is present,” explained Andrew Dondlinger, vice president of connected services for Navistar. “Based on this change in approach, there is an immediate increase in the availability of updates, but that doesn’t mean OEMs will increase the frequency of update releases.”

What happens if the connection is lost during an OTA update?

In most cases, an OTA update will go smoothly, but like all technology, there is the possibility of a hiccup. In the case that an update doesn’t take, in Cummins engines, the ECM will automatically restore the previous calibration.

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“The fleet manager has access to the status of the re-calibration request from the portal, allowing them to track update completions across their fleet,” said Paula Watson, director of customer success and solution integration with Cummins. “The driver can continue his or her mission and the fleet manager is notified of any interruption in the process and has the opportunity to approve the calibration again, if desired. This situation is an edge case, and under normal circumstances will not occur.

“The fleet manager also has the flexibility to rollback a new calibration and restore the previous one,” Watson continued. “This process works exactly the same as the new calibration install from the perspective of the fleet and the operator. Again: this is not expected to occur often, but the flexibility is important to the customer.”

From update to upgrade

As manufacturers roll out both OEM- and fleet-initiated software updates and fleets become comfortable with touching the truck remotely, it opens the door to even more remote service opportunities and abilities.

“Even before the pilot phase, we had conversations with fleets who had a lot of interest in use cases that we definitely see as possibilities going forward,” said Jason Krajewski, director of connectivity with Daimler Trucks North America. “Look at how we could impact the max vehicle speed remotely—that could tie to GPS data, local speed limits or even ambient weather conditions like snow, rain, winds, etc. Or think about reducing speed in construction zones—fleets might want to slow their trucks in those areas.

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“It’s definitely a growth step,” Krajewski continued. “It’s a next phase, but fleets have come up with some unique scenarios, and it’s pretty exciting to think beyond simply being able to change the numbers on an engine parameter and start talking about the next generation. But we definitely recognize that the over-the-air technology is brand new, and fleets are going to have to spend some time with it to get there.”

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