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Software update: Does your vehicle need one?

In more than one regard, your modern car, truck or crossover is a great big sheetmetal computer on wheels. New vehicles have more computers than ever, with software, coding and microchips controlling virtually every aspect of their operation, from how they shift, to how the climate control system works, to the operation of the lights, signals, safety systems, and even rear-seat entertainment consoles.

Software is everywhere. It exists in computers big and small and controls the devices and programs that we humans use on a constant basis. But, as it goes with software, sometimes, things go wrong. Got a laptop or iPhone or Smartwatch? No problem. When the software acts up, or when its developer finds a latent issue or some way to make the software work better, they typically release a patch, or software update. You download it, it installs itself, and your device is back up and running — tickety-boo, lickety-split.

But what about the software in a vehicle? Sometimes, that software needs updating too. And if that’s the case, a trip to your dealership is likely required.

If you drive a modern car or truck, chances are that some updated software has, or will be, available for installation. This typically happens at a dealer, where a technician plugs in a tablet-like device via a special cable to the computer port your vehicle has hiding under its dashboard.

This computer port provides access to the vehicle’s various computer brains and the software written into them.

But why does a vehicle need software updates? The reasons are numerous.

Sometimes, a software update, or re-flash (which wipes out existing software and replaces it, sort of like reformatting your computer hard drive) can correct some issue a driver is having with their vehicle. Perhaps the affected factory software has become corrupt. In this case, a simple erase-and-reinstall is the fix.

In other cases, the automaker realizes that there’s an opportunity to improve the functionality, durability or efficiency of one or more vehicle systems and updated software is released to make it happen. This new set of software instructions is uploaded into the computer that controls the component in question — perhaps a transmission computer, power tailgate computer, or the instrument cluster display computer.

Sometimes an automaker realizes that a correction is needed to factory-installed software after the vehicle was built. Perhaps some operational condition wasn’t accounted for, causing some owners to complain of some unforeseen problem in a specific situation. Update the software, and you might have your fix. In other cases, software updates can address latent safety issues, improve the vehicle’s driveability and much more.

Many dealerships install software updates when you bring your ride in for servicing, like an oil-change, brake job, or tune-up. Using your vehicle’s VIN number, the dealer is able to determine which, if any, software updates are available for your specific vehicle. These are downloaded to the technician’s tablet, and uploaded via that special cable into your vehicle’s computer.

In some models, certain software updates can be installed via a USB drive by the vehicle’s driver, and over-the-air software updates, installed via wi-fi or a built-in wireless connection in the vehicle, are starting to appear. But at the moment, chances are the software update your ride needs must be dealer-installed.

Sometimes, dealers let customers know that a software update is available, typically if it’s part of a safety recall. In other cases, the update is applied automatically when your car is in for a visit, sometimes, without you even knowing about it.

Or, show up with a specific complaint, and the technician can look up any pending software updates to see if one may be the fix.

And they’re important to do. In your writer’s weekly research on used cars, I find numerous software updates issued to fix problems relating to many makes and models.

The most common? The transmission software update. In the overwhelming majority of cases reported by owners where a transmission shifts hard, makes unwanted noises or sensations, or otherwise performs poorly, a software update is the fix.

Here, the problem may feel dramatic, but a simple software update, applied in a matter of minutes, often fixes a mechanical problem within the transmission that’s caused by bad software, not bad hardware.

Case in point? On a test drive of a new Mercedes E-Class a few years back, I noted the transmission to shift smoothly and flawlessly — other than when it downshifted from third to second gear, where it felt consistently as though someone was whacking the floor pan with a sledgehammer. After a quick trip to the dealer, and a few minutes plugged into a shop tablet, the problem was corrected.

Another common problem that can be averted by running the most up to date software? Surprise dead batteries. Computer software controls when and how virtually every electronic device in your vehicle turns off in response to you turning off the ignition. Sometimes, corrupt software means this process doesn’t always work properly. In multiple cases, I’ve seen software updates fix problems with frustrating dead batteries, by correcting an issue where a certain vehicle sub-system (commonly, the navigation system or rear-seat entertainment console) stayed on, even with the ignition switched off.

Software updates can help your hybrid battery to charge faster and last longer. They can help your radar-based safety systems work better, with fewer false alarms. They can reduce unwanted oil consumption from your engine, prevent overheating, help your vehicle get better mileage, and even keep your engine from blowing up.

As modern vehicles see larger and larger cabins heated in the winter by smaller and smaller engines, more and more software updates are being issued to help the vehicle’s heater perform better in extreme cold.

The list goes on and on.

The point? If your vehicle has some frustrating issue, there’s a decent chance that updated software may be the fix. Just check with your dealer, and see if any software updates may be available for you.

Or ask your technician to check into any available software updates, next time you’re in for an oil change or tune up, though it’s likely they’ll be checking automatically.

Do you have to pay for it? That depends. If the software update corrects some issue covered by warranty, corrects some issue with the emissions system, or is part of a safety-related recall, it’s typically covered for free.

In some cases, software updates are performed on the owner’s dime, but typically not until the vehicle is out of warranty.

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