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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had an admin. We didn’t know what we were doing. I started doing prototyping. And that was just a winning formula for BMW. They really liked it.” The BMW office essentially turned into a production shop for high-tech show cars, Shaw says.

“What I learned from that experience,” he says, “was that if you’re going to take technology in its purest form, present it to another industry that embraces technology but doesn’t understand technology and is built around a consumer need, transportation, they don’t appreciate the beauty of a chip or a correctly written API. You need to put it in a context. And in the case of automotive execs, show cars is what they’re used to.”

But the prototypes led to some real products: Shaw’s facility built the first version of iDrive, the computer interface that’s now used in most BMW cars to control the audio, navigation, and climate systems. A skunkworks project led to the world’s first system for connecting an Apple iPod to a car audio system—again, standard equipment on most cars today. “We had a lot of fun there,” Shaw says.

Shaw left BMW in 2003. That’s roughly when GM began courting him to rejoin the company. “I had been talking back and forth with some people I knew at GM, and they asked me to come to Detroit. I thought I was going to, but when we got to the altar, I had to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do this. I can’t move to Detroit. But if you happen to put up a facility in Silicon Valley, give me a shout.’” Shaw returned to California and took a detour into the solar industry, founding a company called Ready Solar that specialized in retrofitting residential rooftops for photovoltaic panels.

The shout from GM finally came in April 2006—and in some ways, it was a cry of pain. Conditions were bad inside GM. The company was losing market share to Toyota and other global competitors, and was hemorrhaging more than a billion dollars a month. Some media outlets were predicting the automaker’s demise. But it was ready to listen to Shaw’s argument that it needed a beachhead in Silicon Valley.

“GM wasn’t exactly printing money that year,” says Shaw. “It was a big deal, in the middle of that, to convince GM that they needed to do something bold in Silicon Valley. Out here we used to say all the time, ‘Look who’s not at the party—GM, Ford, and Chrysler.’ All of the multinationals—BMW, Daimler, VW, Audi, Toyota, Nissan—had a presence in Silicon Valley, all had embraced the fact that the spin cycle here is so fast that if you are not in the middle of it, you are not going to be able to lead in those spaces. Getting GM to do that was a big step forward.”

But this gig was nothing like Shaw’s BMW years. There are no show cars inside the big, open, startup-like Palo Alto office—just engineers figuring out how to apply Silicon Valley thinking to the driving experience. One of Shaw’s lieutenants, for example, is Frankie James, who got her computer-science PhD from Stanford studying HTML interfaces for the blind. Now she works on improving the human-machine interface inside vehicles. “You might as well think of drivers as being blind—their physical capacity for sight should be focused on the road,” Shaw explains. “But the touchscreen seems to be the baseline [user interface] going forward. So what technologies could you use to allow you to have touchscreens in the car that don’t require you to look at them?”

When Shaw’s people find vendors making software or gadgets that might work inside cars, they can put the products through their paces in the facility’s electronics lab. There’s even a garage where … Next Page »

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

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