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

The only time I’ve visited General Motors’ OnStar operation, its bustling command center was out in Troy, MI, a long way from its current site at GM headquarters in downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center. That was nine years and about four million subscribers ago (OnStar now has 5.7 million subscribers, compared to 1.7 million in 2001 when I visited). It was a time when automakers were testing ideas like building docking stations for Palm Pilots (an ancient device before the iPhone) into cars so that you could access your contacts list and a few other applications while you drove.

Now, in the Age of App Stores, when hundreds of thousands of applications can theoretically be beamed to any device anywhere, the idea of equipping cars to handle any specific piece of consumer electronics hardware seems out of sync with the pace of technological evolution. The car, though, could be a fantastic conduit or channeling medium for a wide array of ever-changing business and entertainment applications and services residing in the cloud. I was reminded of all this earlier this month, when OnStar announced a series of new features designed to let you do things like listen to text messages or Facebook news updates while driving, as well as lock your door or check your oil level through your smartphone.

Wade wrote about many of these new features at the time of the announcement. But afterward, I reached out to try and understand more about the forces that GM sees at work-and perhaps get a better feel for the future of the car, not in the next few months (or even the next year) as all these just-announced services roll out into the market, but farther down the road, so to speak. So I caught up by phone with Nick Pudar, OnStar’s vice president of planning and business development, for a quick overview of the kinds of things being pursued at OnStar’s Advanced Development Lab in the basement of the Renaissance Center—as well as what the company envisions for our cars’ connectivity and smartness in general.

For OnStar, Pudar told me to help frame our conversation, most of what consumers want falls into four big buckets: keep me safe, keep me driving, keep me informed, and keep me entertained. With those in mind, here are some highlights from our conversation (the subject titles are my interpretation of what Pudar was saying, not OnStar categories):

A Different Type of Engine—Your Voice: When it comes to cars, says Pudar, many of the features that consumers would love to see are very basic and pretty much what we are familiar with already: Help me get to where I am going. Locate my car. Get help if I’m in an accident. So one obvious step to making those things better is to keep making them easier to do. As Pudar puts it, “We’re looking for intuitively simple, no user’s guide necessary, I-need-help-I’m-going-to-get-it-without-even-thinking-about-it.”

An enabler here might be better voice recognition. OnStar’s recognition engine has to operate in conditions with lots of ambient noise and grok four languages (French, Spanish, English, and Mandarin), as well as multiple dialects. Now, with the latest technology (GM gets its speech system from Burlington, MA-based Nuance), users are presumably much better able to just say what they want done than they were just a few years ago—and that will continue to improve. Better speech recognition, in turn, should help the car meet many of those basic requirements more effectively.

The Car as Smartphone: A step removed from basic needs are things on the consumer wish list that are less front and center than navigation or getting help in an accident, but are becoming 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.

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

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