Other manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, send wireless uploads to update various in-vehicle apps, including maps and entertainment offerings like Spotify and Pandora.
The number of vehicles on United States roads that can accept infotainment software upgrades will increase to 34 million in 2022 from one million now, the consulting firm IHS Markit predicts.
“The advantages for automakers of doing over-the-air updates are too great to ignore,” said Egil Juliussen, automotive analyst for IHS Markit. “They can keep their functionality up-to-date and get rid of bugs.”
Tesla’s upgrades have included an updated digital instrument panel, a revised touch screen, faster acceleration, activation of Autopilot and the ability for the vehicle to enter and exit a garage without anyone being in the car.
“Software updates to my Tesla are like Christmas,” said Ankur Pansari of San Francisco. “When I get them, I have a new toy to play with.”
And the automaker can save money. With cars and trucks increasingly reliant on complex computer code to operate, manufacturers can cut costs if they can correct or improve a vehicle’s functions without having to get the car into a dealership.
In November 2013, Tesla issued a software update to electronically raise the ground clearance of the Model S after a vehicle’s battery pack caught fire when it ran over an object. A subsequent update gave the driver the ability to change the clearance at will.
“Software updates are extremely important to me,” said another Tesla owner, Scott Wolf, a software engineer in Naples, Fla. “Knowing there are new features and they can fix the car without having to bring it in — that’s very impressive for an owner.”
Ford, which previously provided software updates to its Sync infotainment system using a USB memory stick, will soon send software uploads to deliver Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality to its 2016 models equipped with its Sync 3 infotainment system. CarPlay and Auto replicate certain iPhone and Android smartphone features on the vehicle’s display.
Ford delivers the updated software via Wi-Fi, installing it when the vehicle is restarted. The company will eventually switch to making updates via satellite.
Sending uploads will enable Ford to reduce the number of versions of its software. Instead of creating baked-in variants for each country, for example, Ford will be able to upload interfaces in different languages.
“We absolutely believe in the promise of software updates,” said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of connected vehicles.
Manufacturers are also looking at software downloads as a new source of revenue, turning on features remotely if the owner pays a fee. It would be similar to the way most new cars come with the hardware for SiriusXM satellite radio but require owners to pay a subscription fee.
Tesla has already incorporated fees-for-features into its business model. While late-model Tesla vehicles are equipped with cameras and sensors to enable semiautonomous driving, this feature — Autopilot — requires a $3,000 to $3,500 software download to make it work.
Owners of the Tesla S60 are also able to increase their vehicle’s range by about 40 miles if they pay Tesla $9,000 to activate the feature through a software download.
Other automakers see similar opportunities. “There are potential situations where one could buy a Ford with a base configuration, and then we could deliver an update for an à la carte fee, or on a subscription basis,” said Mr. Butler of Ford.
The trend does pose challenges. Security is important to prevent unauthorized software, including Trojan horses or other malicious malware, from being inadvertently downloaded. And once software is downloaded, the potential exists to hack it, as two security researchers demonstrated last year with a Jeep.
Jason Hughes, a Tesla Model S owner and computer programmer in Hickory, N.C., did not like the speed restrictions and the need to keep his hands on the wheel that Tesla requires when Autopilot is used on the streets.
Hacking into the software, Mr. Hughes removed those safeguards. Tesla declined to comment on whether such activity would void an owner’s warranty. But Mr. Hughes runs the risk of having the restrictions restored when the next update is beamed down.
A direct communications link between an automaker and its vehicles means the company has the capability not only to upgrade software but to monitor vehicle systems as well. Location, driving style and serviceability can all be tracked.
Since May, G.M. has offered its optional Smart Driver technology to the three million customers who own vehicles with 4G wireless capability. The system tracks and analyzes driving characteristics, suggesting ways to improve fuel economy and reduce wear and tear. The company will also suggest that drivers with strong scores seek insurance discounts.
Remote software updates will become particularly crucial as vehicles become more capable of driving themselves.
“Software upgrades will be almost mandatory once we move up to higher forms of autonomous driving,” said Richard Wallace, a director at the Center for Automotive Research. “The artificial intelligence underpinning self-driving will require constant upgrading to deal with novel situations.”
In the future, vehicle manufacturers might even refuse to assume liability for an autonomous vehicle that causes a crash but whose owner did not bother to accept an upgrade, said Lars Reger, the chief technology officer at NXP Semiconductors, a supplier to the automotive industry.
For all the issues and opportunities posed by the upgradeable car, one business consideration might seem crucial for automakers: Will the ability to continually improve features and performance make the idea of buying a new car less enticing?
Here, too, the smartphone analogy could prove apt, carmakers say.
“Ultimately, satisfied customers will want an ongoing relationship with us,” said Mr. Butler of Ford. “As with an iPhone, at some point the hardware will no longer be upgradeable. It’s part of the world we live in.”