To Bring Driving into the Infotainment Age, GM’s Palo Alto Office Melds Silicon Valley Fancy with Detroit Pragmatism

9/8/11Follow @wroush

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pretty obvious: they’ll be able to tap the power and connectivity of their smartphones in their cars, but using simplified interfaces that automotive engineers have vetted as safe. “Maybe there are 15 navigation apps out there for your phone,” says Shaw. “What we will be able to do is certify that ‘These three nav apps have been tested and they meet GM guidelines, so you’ll get more support [in Terminal Mode] if you use them.’”

Shaw also has representatives on the board of GENIVI, a Bay Area-based group of companies developing an open source operating system for the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems that Terminal Mode might connect to. Right now, pretty much every vehicle model and generation has its own unique IVI, which means developers must write the same basic navigation, music, Internet, multimedia, and communications apps over and over. The GENIVI companies want to create a write-once, run-everywhere environment similar to iOS or Android, so that developers can spend more of their time being creative. Of course, if GM ends up using GENIVI in its own vehicles, it will have the added challenge of differentiating its own infotainment systems in the marketplace. But Shaw’s argument is that “If you don’t participate, how can you not be behind?”

It all makes perfect sense to anyone from the software world. Which is why it probably would have been hard for a GM insider to start the Palo Alto office. Instead it took someone like Shaw, who has solid credentials in the auto industry but has spent most of his career in Silicon Valley.

Shaw’s personal history with GM is, however, complicated. He’d been a garage monkey since childhood, tearing apart every car or motorcycle he could get his hands on. And his very first job, after leaving MIT in 1990 with a BS in mechanical engineering, was in GM’s Harrison Division, where he was asked to help redesign vehicle air conditioning systems to use a new, environmentally safer refrigerant. But it wasn’t a happy experience. “I ran away screaming, and I swore to myself that I would never work at GM again,” Shaw says.

The problem, Shaw says now, was that he had been trained at MIT to try to understand a problem before solving it. But the ethic at GM was simply “build it, try it, test it until it breaks,” he says. “It wasn’t ‘model this, understand the physics, see if your refrigerant is chemically incompatible with your lubricant.’ There was a disconnect for me.”

Shaw says he felt much more comfortable in his next job, testing new engines in the central research labs at Daimler Benz in Stuttgart—and not just because he happened to have a second degree in German language and literature. “That was a great experience, because I was able to do exactly what I was doing at school, in an applied fashion,” he says. It was a huge contrast to the product development work at GM, where he says there was “very little stomach for experimentation.”

Eventually Shaw moved to California, where he got his PhD at UC Berkeley. His dissertation used computer models to explore ways of reducing hydrocarbon emissions from engines at cold-start. He did some work for a software firm—”The lure of being sucked into working for a software company in Silicon as a mechanical engineer is very high,” he says—but, unlike many of his peers at Berkeley, he decided he wanted to stay in the auto industry.

That was fortunate for another German firm, BMW, which, around 1998, was looking for someone to start a Silicon Valley office, as its competitor Mercedes had in 1996. “I was the first hire,” Shaw recounts. “A couple of guys came over from Germany, and we … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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