Inside Look At General Motor's OnStar System - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

Inside Look At General Motor's OnStar System

GM faces a huge task in scaling its IT infrastructure to support the global expansion of OnStar and a doubling of the number of subscribers.

As General Motors prepares to make its OnStar in-car safety and navigation system available outside North America, OnStar CIO Tim Cox faces the most challenging work of his career. In the next two years, Cox's job is to build out OnStar's complex voice and data network to support an expected doubling of its current subscriber base of five million drivers.

OnStar handles about 70,000 daily calls from subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, which drivers make by pressing buttons in their autos to request routing directions, road-side assistance, accident help, and other services. These calls are wirelessly routed to two data centers that interpret requests through voice recognition software, pull subscriber information and related data from various servers, and then pass it on to advisers in one of three U.S. locations. These transactions must happen almost instantly, since time is critical, particularly if there's an injury accident.

Subscribers who press the blue button in their autos, for such requests as directions or vehicle diagnostics, show up as blue pinpoints on a map of North America. Red pinpoints represent emergency calls.
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The complexity of this process has limited the service to drivers in U.S. and Canada. But late last month, GM announced its first foray into globalizing OnStar, striking a deal with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. to make the system available in 2009 to drivers in China, one of GM's fastest growing markets. That's going to require new data centers, Mandarin-speaking advisers, and the ability to handle millions more subscribers. "This is what keeps me awake at night," said Cox during an interview at GM's Detroit headquarters Tuesday.

That's because OnStar's IT infrastructure will need to support 10 million subscribers by 2010, a hugely ambitious two-year growth plan, considering it's taken the automaker 11 years to grow OnStar to half that number. GM offers two service packages -- $19 a month for basic OnStar and $29 for the deluxe version -- making it a roughly $1.5 billion-a-year business in 2007.

GM's lead in safety telematics is sizeable: it has more than 400 OnStar patents and files for a new one about every six days. It offers OnStar in 95% of its fleet, yet competitors are on its heels. Hughes Networks earlier this month announced a new system that offers both safety features and infotainment features -- including voice commands for MP3 players, similar to Ford's new Sync system -- and it has deals with Chrysler and Mercedes Benz to offer subscriptions starting in 2009. Toyota is believed to be working on a similar service, said OnStar communications manager James Kobus. "We know competitors are coming," Kobus said.

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