What’s Next for Car Connectivity? Notes From the Future of GM’s OnStar

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indispensable. One big force Pudar cited was connectivity—seamless connectivity, far beyond just making phone calls from our cars, but to the Internet and our friends in whatever manner we wish. A lot of this is an extension of the smartphone movement. “Smartphones are dominating the attention and mindshare of people thinking about connectivity,” Pudar says. So if you love your smartphone and all the things you can do with it—tweet, query Yelp for a great restaurant, get the latest news, sports, and weather, check in on social networks—all this is coming to your car.

Of course, some of it is there already (or close), as evidenced by the recent OnStar announcement. But to me, hearing your Facebook feed update or a friend’s tweet is beside the point, a bit like the Internet-era version of building a docking station for the Palm Pilot. Facebook and Twitter seem ubiquitous—but so did the Palm Pilot. And even if they last, I personally doubt they’re things people want to do in their cars. But people do want to be connected. And, as Pudar puts it, “OnStar will have a relevant set of capabilities that will provide a key interface to their digital worlds while they are driving or interacting with their vehicles. “

Follow up: I e-mailed Pudar this question: Does the wave of anti-texting and anti-phone legislation help or hurt on this front?

His response: “The core issue is that drivers need better situational awareness during all the tasks they are trying to do while driving. We are looking for solutions that provide for safer alternatives. A hands-free, voice-based interaction to get turn-by-turn navigation instructions allows the customer to focus on the driving task and not have to be trying to read street signs and read paper instructions.”

OnStar Mobile App Technology

Sensible Services: I think of this category as encompassing things that act as a bridge between your car and your smartphone. Take the forthcoming Chevy Volt. It’s important to know how much charge an electric vehicle like the Volt has in it before you head off somewhere. Well, Pudar says, wouldn’t it be nice if you could access the car’s battery status through your smartphone so that you could plan ahead? This kind of thing is evidenced in the new OnStar mobile app (initially for iPhones and Android phones) announced earlier this month, which GM said will be rolled out first for the Volt and then be applied to most of its 2011 vehicles. It lets you do things like lock or unlock your car, check your tire pressure or oil levels, and monitor your battery status through a smartphone app. But that’s just the tip of this connectivity iceberg. In the future, Pudar says, look for your car to be able to access you. In the case of the Volt, why should you have to wake up in the night, say, wondering if you remembered to plug in your car for charging? You shouldn’t. Instead, says Pudar, “If your vehicle is not plugged in by a certain time in the evening, your car’s going to send you a text message.”

And that’s just one “very little, simple example” of what’s coming, he says. “In the not-too-distant future, we’re going to see a broader range of almost real-time connections between the vehicle and the customer,” Pudar says, joking that his wife wants an alert that lets him know when her car is low on gas so he can fill it up.

Admiral of the Fleet: Remember the four buckets Pudar mentioned above: keep me safe, keep me driving, keep me informed, keep me entertained? Well, there’s a fifth bucket in OnStar’s view: business services for companies with fleets of vehicles. This really seems to be about taking the sensing and communications mentioned above and applying it on a big scale to fleets. Pudar envisions aggregating all diagnostics from all vehicles in a fleet, so that a company can more effectively schedule preventive maintenance, as opposed to relying upon individual drivers to report when something is wrong or needs attention.

Smart Highways: Say our cars are really getting smarter. Could this truly be the beginning of smart highways, where cars and roads work together to keep traffic flowing and safe? The idea has been around for years, but Pudar seems to think its time is almost at hand. “The holy grail that everybody wants to do perfectly is better congestion management and making sure traffic flows,” he says, noting that the standards and protocols necessary for this to happen are already emerging. “I think the quality of traffic [reporting], and the embedding of traffic in actual trusted routing conditions, will continue to emerge in the next two to five years to the point it will be a customer requirement.”

Then hands-free driving will take on a whole new meaning.

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Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at bbuderi@xconomy.com. Follow @bbuderi

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