Start Your Engines

Cover Story, Sharing The Ride, GM's Tony Scott gives a lift to integrators that share his vision of the car as an open-system platform

Craig Zarley, Contributor

October 20, 2004

9 Min Read

When it comes to the digital automobile, General Motors wants to share the road.

GM has already emerged as a leader in bringing digital technology to the automobile with its OnStar service and XM radio alliance. But Tony Scott, GM’s CTO of Information Systems and Service, wants to take it much further. GM is talking to a broad spectrum of potential partners to help the automaker enhance media content and expand the services being offered in new digitally enabled automobiles, something Scott believes is quickly becoming the next opportunity in open-system platforms. (Click here to read an interview with Scott.)

And the road ahead, Scott adds, looks pretty smooth. Other than bandwidth problems, “there are certainly not a lot of technology barriers” to offering new digital services, he says.

Part of GM’s challenge in this space is its need to partner with content and technology providers, bring those elements together and deliver them to the customer through a clean interface. As a result, GM is out in the marketplace listening to content providers, solution providers and small integrators that have what Scott calls “interesting ideas.” But, he says, it’s a process of sorting through what makes sense for GM and its customers. The questions he raises in evaluating potential partnerships include finding the right product, at the right price, under the right provisioning model.

GM’s partnering strategy opens up a huge opportunity for integrators and content providers. “I don’t see us getting into the content business ourselves; it’s not our core competency,” says Scott.

Digital integrators are already working independently of large automotive manufacturers, implementing digital technologies such as satellite radios, voice-recognition and hands-free cellular phone systems, wireless computers and MP3 music file servers into their customers’ automobiles.

Kerry Schanz, president of Wee Bee Audio, a home and automotive integrator in Lancaster, Pa., who is waiting for customer awareness surrounding these solutions to increase, says the hottest category among his automotive customers is video. “There are a lot of SUVs with a lot of travel going on,” he says. “The most popular thing is the all-in-one with the DVD player built in up top with a flip-down screen. Navigation business is on a constant but slow rise.”

But, he says, it’s tough to compete against GPS equipment such as OnStar that is offered as an option on new vehicles. People don’t seem to have trouble paying $2,000 or more for a GPS system as an accessory in a new automobile, Schanz says, but they are reluctant to spend that much to add one to an existing vehicle. A typical in-dash navigation system runs between $1,500 and $2,500, he notes. But a product like the Magellan navigation system, which sits on the dashboard like a radar detector, sells for about $800 and sneaks under the all-important $1,000 barrier he sees as necessary to crack the add-in GPS market.

Industry leaders see a plethora of automobile integration opportunities beyond navigation devices and static DVD players.

Bill Bodin, director and senior technical staff member at IBM’s Pervasive Computing Advanced Technology Lab in Austin, Texas, is a driving force behind the integration of voice-recognition technologies in cars, which IBM has provided to Honda and Infinity for some of their models. Sensor technology, he says, will be one of the next big waves that integrators will be part of. A look at the Technology Lab’s demo car, the Blue Octane, a tricked-out Chrysler Concord, offers several good examples of how integrators can offer unique, value-added digital automotive solutions to their clients by tapping into current technology and using some imagination.

Bodin and his team, for instance, integrated simple sensors within the car to detect low oil pressure, faulty brakes, worn belts, overheating and just about any other problem. Using wireless technology, the car’s computer system can warn drivers about impending problems, let them know if and how they can fix it themselves, or whether a mechanic should perform the repair. The system also notifies the mechanic, who can then schedule a maintenance call.

That type of technology--from the implementation, monitoring and ongoing support of the sensors and wireless communications network--is a logical offering for cutting-edge integrators, Bodin says. “For those solutions to be effective, they need integrated voice and data applications. We’re going to see more and more of those types of applications in a short time,” Bodin recently told Digital Connect. “It would look like these intuitive technologies would diminish the role of the solution provider, but it will be enhanced because the technologies will create all types of services that need to be integrated and monitored.”

These integration opportunities also include the convergence of digital content from the home network to the car. For example, Omnifi, a division of Rockford, manufactures a full solution that allows users to wirelessly access music files from a home PC and download them to a removable server, which is about the size of a PDA and resides under the car seat. Omnifi is recruiting digital integrators into its partner program, says Tom O’Mara, Omnifi’s managing director. “When you start adding multiple digital devices to create an infrastructure solution for the masses, integrators are the key,” O’Mara says. “The cool thing with our system is that it integrates to an existing home system, so it’s a full value-added solution.”

Other automobile and product manufacturers share the vision that technology used in the home and the office is rapidly converging with the automobile to create solutions digital integrators can independently replicate. BMW, for example, sells an adapter to integrate an Apple iPod directly into a car’s sound system. The company also introduced a rear-seat entertainment system package for the X3 as a dealer-installed option. The package comes with two 7-inch LCD screens preconfigured in replacement headrests that match the vehicle’s original headrests, and two wireless dual-channel headphones. The headphones can be used to listen to either the sound from a movie in the DVD player installed in the center console between the front seats, or the sound from a video game. Both screens are equipped with auxiliary audio and video input jacks, which may be used to connect video game devices to the system.

And Lexus has just begun offering Bluetooth wireless technology and a voice-activated navigation system that includes a backup camera.

However, GM’s strategy may prove to be more partner-friendly than its competitors’ initiatives. GM’s vision of the future, Scott says, differs in that it wants to build automobiles that can accept a broad range of current consumer devices rather than making an alliance with a specific technology partner. “We are not likely to put an iPod-like capability directly into the vehicle as a one-off sort of thing, or a video player that would be unique to the car,” he says. Instead, Scott wants GM to incorporate open standards into its automobiles so the cars can accept multiple generations of consumer products. “One of the issues that drives this is that the consumer product’s life cycle is a year to 18 months,” he explains. “The car life cycle is much longer. GM does well if it provides vehicles that can survive multiple generations of consumer products.”

That GM is focusing as much on the business vs. the technical side of bringing technology to the automobile says a lot about how far digital convergence has come. Expectations are growing every year in terms of what consumers want in their automobiles from a connected standpoint. “We all remember when the backseat DVD was a novelty; now it’s mainstream,” Scott points out.

Bob Cole, president of World Wide Stereo, an audio/video integrator in Hatfield, Pa., says the best opportunity for integrators is in the aftermarket for customers who own their cars for a long time. Customers who buy a new Mercedes or BMW, for example, are going to opt for the factory-installed GPS system. “The opportunity is to go after the very upscale customer who holds on to his car and plans to keep it for 10 years,” he says.

Cole targets customers who may have Sirius radios in their cars but haven’t added XM. “We try to get them in the door and sell them something besides just Sirius,” he says. As a result of his efforts, Cole says that the average job for an automotive customer is $2,500, compared with about $400 a few years ago.

GM, for its part, installs options that integrators and digital content providers can layer digital services on top of, reinforcing its strategy of the car as an open system.

The two factory-installed options at the vanguard of GM’s convergence efforts are its OnStar system and its move toward XM satellite radio. Terry Sullivan, vice president in GM’s OnStar unit, says the automaker is increasing the annual production of OnStar-equipped vehicles from 1.4 million in 2004 to 2.2 million in 2005. That number will rise to 3 million vehicles in 2006, further driving consumer awareness of digital automotive technologies. OnStar’s capabilities, Sullivan says, have evolved well beyond a simple embedded cell phone and GPS locator. OnStar’s virtual advisor, for example, can automatically download information that has been preprogrammed by the driver into his or her Web site. The virtual advisor, in concert with the vehicle’s GPS capabilities, can tell the driver of all traffic incidents within a 5-, 10- or 15-mile range. The driver can do things such as preprogram his or her route to work to tie into automatic traffic updates, as well as get weather reports, news and sports piped into the vehicle, Sullivan says. GM, in essence, views its OnStar system as a personal Web site for drivers.

Crash notification will be just one enhancement in the addition of digital services. “If you’re in an accident and your airbag goes off, a cellular data message goes to the call center,” Sullivan says. “We are able to take that data connection and switch it into a voice connection and go into that car and inquire if there has been an accident and do you need assistance.”

GM, too, is banking much of its future convergence ambitions on XM radio. “The notion of having a TiVo-like experience for your car radio is not unheard of,” says Scott. “You’ll be able to cache content on your car radio and play it when you want to hear it. And if you can cache radio FM content, you can probably cache other kinds of digital content whether it’s songs, video, movies, news broadcasts or sports shows.”

But bandwidth, Scott says, remains the major stumbling block to true convergence of a wireless online connection to automobiles. “Given the state of affairs, there isn’t sufficient bandwidth today to enable a really rich online experience in the car,” he says. “Having said that, there will be more hot spots, and cars in the future will be able to take advantage of that.”

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