GM Updates OnStar Brand for the Era of Mobile, Social Media

Since 1997, owners of selected General Motors vehicles have had the option of subscribing to OnStar, a cellular service that lets drivers make hands-free phone calls, hear turn-by-turn navigational cues, receive remote diagnostic reports, and get emergency support in accidents. In the car business, 13 years is a long time—but in the world of mobile communications and software, it’s eons. So GM’s perennial challenge with OnStar is to keep up with the ways consumers are accessing data on other mobile platforms, especially their smartphones.

Today the company announced that it’s upgrading both the hardware that goes into OnStar-equipped cars and the telematics infrastructure that connects this hardware to the Internet and other resources. The aim is to enable drivers behind the wheel to engage in mobile-computing activities like sending receiving text messages and Facebook newsfeed updates, but without endangering themselves or other drivers.

The news was part of a general branding and marketing push—unveiled at simultaneous media events Tuesday night in Austin, Miami, New York, and San Francisco—that showcases OnStar’s new capabilities as an “infotainment” platform. The message of this “LiveOn” campaign, to be conveyed through TV commercials and print and online ads, is that OnStar has evolved into much more than the navigation and emergency-response system familiar to many consumers.

GM OnStar "LiveOn" campaign, sample print adBut the company is proceeding with caution, padding its message about mobile interactivity with an emphasis on what it calls “responsible connectivity.” “Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the drive” was the mantra used by Timothy Nixon, GM’s executive director for infotainment and OnStar engineering, at the San Francisco launch event. “But if I can keep my hands on the wheel while listening to a Facebook newsfeed and reply to it, why not?” he added in remarks to Xconomy.

GM had announcements on several fronts. It said it would build a ninth generation of OnStar hardware into new vehicles, featuring better voice recognition, Bluetooth-accessible phonebook listings, and improved navigation services. Connecting OnStar-equipped cars will be a new “Advanced Telematics Operations Management System,” or ATOMS, which it called “one of the most powerful and comprehensive machine-to-machine telematics systems in the world.”

It’s this new system that’s allowing the company to experiment with voice texting—a feature that would connect drivers’ smartphones to an in-dash system via Bluetooth, read text messages aloud using speech synthesis technology, and allow users to verbally select preset responses (but not compose new responses, which might conflict with proliferating no-texting-while-driving laws).

ATOMS is also behind a new Facebook audio update system that the company demonstrated at the launch event. It lets users listen to the most recent updates in their Facebook news feeds, and record audio updates that are then automatically posted to their feeds. But the company isn’t saying when this feature might be available—Nixon said it’s something engineers just started experimenting with in the last few weeks.

In addition, GM launched a series of OnStar-connected mobile apps under a new “MyLink” brand. The apps, like traditional wireless keyfobs, let iPhone and Android owners interact with their Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac vehicles remotely—including locking and unlocking doors and activating the horn and the engine. A prototype app for the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle goes further, allowing owners to check battery charge status, tire pressure, and other data.

In a conversation with Nixon after last night’s announcements, I asked whether GM felt it had to build more interactive features into OnStar in order to keep up with the expectations created by today’s smartphones. He had a long and interesting response, which I’ll quote at length:

“We have, as General Motors, responded to what we see going on in the mobile space. The general mobile space is just exploding. We are sitting here thinking about 2014. We’ve got to predict what 2014, 2015 are going to look like. But if we look back three or four years, the iPhone was just coming out, Facebook was still a campus experience, Hulu was probably on a drawing board somewhere…If we had tried to develop a social media app back in 2008, it probably would have been MySpace, because that’s what everybody was doing. We don’t know what the future holds, so we have to think about what ‘hooks’ to put into the vehicles, and design those hooks in a way that they’re flexible, so that when the next Facebook comes along, we don’t have to rip it apart to make it a reality.

“On the other hand, when we put something into the vehicle, it has to be robust and reliable. Safety and security are our hallmarks. When somebody needs help, that call has got to go through, and that is not something we are going to walk away from. We are in an interesting place because we need to create a robust, reliable platform that can deliver safety and peace of mind but can expand to be flexible and open, so that we can adapt to the change that is coming.

“…Our problem as GM has been, we spend a lot of time engineering things and not a lot of time, frankly, on the PR and marketing campaigns. That’s part of what this is about—promoting responsible connectivity. OnStar is safety and security and it’s always going to be there, but we can promote responsible connectivity and expand OnStar into other domains. Not radically different domains, but we have a brand, let’s build on it and let’s tell people the story.”

Compare this story to:

OnStar Launches Facebook Integration with “Responsible Connectivity” (Mashable)

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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