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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they can see how new technology might fit into actual GM vehicles. The process shows not just whether the technology is ready for the road, but also whether the vendor is ready to deal with a big, demanding customer like GM, says Shaw.

The next step isn’t to impress an executive with a smoke-and-mirrors demo, but to “get an internal champion inside the company who is going to start doing the real work, so that we can just be the instigators,” Shaw says. He says he learned at BMW that “You have to work soldier to soldier with the engineering staff up front, so that when the executive says ‘Hey, what do you guys think about this thing I saw in Palo Alto?’ they can say ‘Yeah, we’re working with them on that, everything is copacetic.’

In other words, there’s a lot of organizational politics and bridge-building to Shaw’s job. Investing, too—Shaw is a managing director at GM Ventures, and oversees the company’s corporate venture activities in Silicon Valley. But having a Palo Alto office is also about learning. “There are a lot of lessons learned that are not just straight tech-product evaluations, but sort of process and best-practice evaluations,” he says. “What is it that makes Silicon Valley such a hotbed of innovation, and how can we integrate that inside of GM?”

As product life cycles get faster, that may be a question of life or death for Detroit. It used to take 60 months or more to get a new car from the drawing board to the assembly line. Now the figure is more like 30 months, and companies like Toyota are trying to get it down to 12. The only way to move that fast, Shaw argues, is to incorporate a few common Silicon Valley practices—i.e., publishing your specs (as the Terminal Mode and GENIVI groups have done), using open-source code, and collaborating across corporate boundaries.

“It’s a question of how much of that can we embrace,” Shaw says. “We certainly feel that open source, collaborative environments, partnerships, a lot of these techniques can be injected into the industry.”

Of course, there’s a limit somewhere. Cars aren’t smartphones; consumers don’t want to be the beta-testers for machines that cost $30,000 and carry their families at 75 miles per hour. So part of GM’s job in Palo Alto is also to provide a reality check for Silicon Valley software developers, forcing them to think about what sorts of interfaces are truly safe and usable inside vehicles. Speech-synthesis interfaces that let you listen to your e-mail while you drive? Probably. Angry Birds? Probably not. Says Shaw, “That’s the light at the end of the tunnel for me—if we can find this melding where we are bringing our respective strengths to the table.”

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

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