General Motors Cruises into CE Week in a Spark EV, Talks Connected Cars

Tuesday night, at the onset of CE Week in New York, carmaker General Motors talked up some of the concepts it is bringing to autos, including new ways to control devices connected to vehicles. GM also opened the doors on its Chevy Spark EV all-electric city car, which went on sale this month in select markets, revealing some of the platforms now being built into its vehicles.

Tim Nixon, chief technology officer of GM’s global connected consumer group, said the introduction of constant connectivity brings new value to autos. “Apps bring that promise to life of having the ability to make the car better over time,” he said. Nixon’s division works on the OnStar concierge service, infotainment, and the development of new services and hardware platforms.

Early this month, GM released the OnStar RemoteLink app that lets car owners unlock their doors and start their engines from afar. When used with the Spark EV, the app lets drivers also monitor the status of their vehicles’ electric charge. “We’ve also announced an app that allows you to plot a course with waypoints to stop and charge,” Nixon said. That could be crucial for getting around in all-electric vehicles, which can call for some foreknowledge of where drivers can plug in along the way.

Nixon compared the ability to make car-technology upgrades via connectivity to updating smartphones and tablets. “We’re on the precipice now of being able to do that in the vehicle,” he said. GM previously announced plans to include 4G LTE always-on connectivity in its autos next year. Wireless data access through vehicles will inevitably increase, Nixon said. “With connectivity comes cloud computing, big data, and a lot of other interesting things that we’ve just now begun to talk about,” he said.

GM already has plans to let third-party developers create services for its platforms. Electric vehicles such as the Spark EV have served as a test bed for such technology, said Paul Pebbles, the company’s global manager of electric vehicle and SmartGrid services. In July, he said, GM plans to announce another developer that will work with its SmartGrid (electric distribution network) application programming interfaces to control devices connected to the power grid. Such technology can be important when matching energy load and demand on the system as more electric vehicles come to market.

The MyLink platform lets drivers use apps and connect with smartphones.

Taking a look inside the Spark EV, GM demoed how its MyLink connectivity platform pairs with mobile devices via Bluetooth and USB to stream media. The touch screen built into the car’s console gives drivers access to information from their connected smartphones such as call history and contacts. The platform includes Pandora Internet Radio and access to other services such as the BringGo navigation app, which downloads and works through smartphones connected to the car.

MyLink can also use voice recognition functions to keep drivers focused while making hands-free calls, sending text messages, getting sports scores, and checking calendars. The platform limits some interactions, such as looking up information that would require taking one’s eyes off the road, to reduce distracted driving.

Earlier on Tuesday, Nixon spoke at CE Week’s Connected Car Conference on a panel that discussed “Keeping Pace with Consumer Electronics.” He joined Tom Malone, president of consumer and automotive products maker Audiovox Electronics (a subsidiary of VOXX International in Hauppauge, NY); David Haight, vice president of business development with AT&T’s emerging devices organization; and Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing with Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems, a subsidiary of BlackBerry.

Autos can provide the kind of ready access to apps, services, and content that users expect from their mobile devices, Haight said. “The experience you have with a smartphone, there is no reason why it can’t be replicated in the vehicle going forward,” he said.

A growing movement toward cloud-based processing and access to content, Haight said, may also create more opportunities for in-vehicle connectivity. “The [specific] device becomes less relevant,” he said.

As consumer tastes in devices change, Malone said, the auto market is shifting away from some features such as embedded screens for rear-seat passengers to connect portable DVD players. Giving occupants in vehicles wireless access to media through their own devices, Malone said, is clearly the future. “We want to provide the solution so when they get in the car they can connect to content,” he said.

The challenge of delivering content to the vehicle, he said, will remain regardless of the platform. “If you assume a child has a smartphone or tablet,” he said, “embedded screens are really not great for the rear seat environment.”

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