Software Updates are an Integral Part of Vehicle Maintenance

Close-up of a Penske maintenence technician looking at an iPad.

Software updates are a critical component of maintenance for Class 8 tractors. As with cellphones and laptops, software updates address bugs, provide security patches and improve features. Plus, some updates, such as those related to emissions, may be mandated by regulatory agencies, including the California Air Resources Board or the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Systems often have to be updated more frequently now than in previous years due to the simple fact that the number of sensors and software modules on equipment has increased," said Chris Hough, vice president of maintenance services for Penske Truck Leasing. "On the heavy-duty side, you are looking at about 30 modules on a Class 8 tractor, but you could have more."

Hough said newer units typically have more updates because there are more opportunities for bugs. "Older units typically receive fewer updates as time goes on,” he explained.

Penske closely monitors the current state of equipment software and works with OEMs to identify updates. “The benefits of actively managing software updates include increased uptime, fewer breakdowns, less time spent in the shop,” Hough said.

Updates can be done in two ways. One is to physically connect a laptop or tablet to a tractor's diagnostic port, which is what Penske’s technicians have traditionally done and still do every time they connect to a vehicle for diagnostics or preventive maintenance-related functions.

Another option is to update software remotely using firmware over the air, also called FOTA. “This simply means that we're using a device on the vehicle connected via a cell connection with a SIM card, and that allows us to download the new software update from the cloud to the vehicle while the vehicle is either keyed on or running,” Hough said.

FOTA updates allow fleets to remotely update the firmware of their trucks without requiring physical access to each vehicle, eliminating the need to take trucks out of service for updates.

Penske has been an early adopter of FOTA technology. “We've been working on this for about four years with each of the OEMs. We’ve been able to perfect their process and provide insight on how to improve it,” Hough said. “We're seeing it work in the field.”

FOTA does require drivers or someone else at a fleet to complete the updates. “They may not fully understand what implications could be present with updating their vehicle if it's via the over-the-air software,” Hough said. “The vehicle may be unable to be started for 20 minutes or so during the update process.”

However, the benefits typically outweigh any inconvenience and are often immediate. These can include fewer inaccurate fault codes or increased fuel economy.

“With some software updates, we know that we can now gain additional fuel economy, which means more miles per gallon and more money saved at the pump. It also increases your maximum range per fuel tank, ensuring that the vehicle operates as designed,” Hough said.

There are several best practices to ensure the software remains current. These include:

Monitor Updates: Fleets can work with OEMs and maintenance providers to ensure they monitor vehicles' software versions. Proactively identifying which trucks require updates can streamline the update process. For fleets that haven’t been actively managing updates, Hough recommends they work with OEMs to identify the current software versions for their ECMs and the number of updates available. "Assess the current state of software updates and needs. Then properly cycle units in so you can get current without overwhelming your shops," Hough said, adding that the fleet should start with the least current software versions.

Establish a Routine Maintenance Schedule: Software updates are an essential part of a regular maintenance schedule. Technicians can run updates every time a vehicle is plugged into diagnostics or preventive maintenance functions.

Create Policies for FOTA Updates: Develop clear policies and procedures for managing FOTA updates, including scheduling, testing and rollback procedures in case of issues. To enable FOTA updates, fleets need to establish robust communication infrastructure to facilitate remote updates securely and reliably.

Train Employees: Training for maintenance staff and drivers on the importance of software updates and how to perform them correctly is essential. It is critical that they understand the potential benefits and risks associated with outdated software and know their role in ensuring updates are completed in a timely manner.

Backup Systems and Data: Before conducting any software updates, critical systems and data must always be backed up to prevent loss or corruption in case of unexpected issues during the update process.

Partner with Penske

Penske closely monitors software update requirements for its customers, running monthly reports to identify which units require an update and how many updates have been completed. Technicians run updates every time they plug in a vehicle, and Penske also pushes out firmware over-the-air updates as needed.