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

9/29/10Follow @bbuderi

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 … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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