Remember the advertising campaign proclaiming that General
Motors' latest cars weren't your father's Oldsmobile?
) is again positioning itself to attract a new generation of
consumers, but this time around the company is relying on a host of
killer applications for its onboard computer platforms. Still not
convinced that this isn't your father's General Motors? Consider
this: OnStar, the groundbreaking communications system pioneered by
GM more than 17 years ago, is actually older than some of the
people currently developing new apps for the auto giant.
"We have the best engineers in the business," says Stefan Cross of
GM's Global Connected Consumer and OnStar Communications divisions.
"But we've been working with developers outside the company, some
of whom aren't even old enough to drive. Widespread access to
digital data has created some really cool ideas from a number of
GM is on a hiring binge to build its in-house app development team
as well. Some computer scientists are giving up Silicon Valley to
live and work in downtown Detroit. Part of the attraction of
working for the world's largest automaker is the rise in popularity
of mobile computing platforms known as "driveables" -- a host
computing system and accompanying applications that can control
nearly every aspect of a car, even if it's sitting idle.
Ford Motor Co.
) has its own suite of offerings under the Ford Connect brand.
), which has been nipping at GM's heels for the title of world's
largest automaker, equips many of its models with its Entune
platform. Even outsides are getting into the "driveable" game:
) has repeatedly hinted that it plans to unveil its own car, which
it views as a powerful computer that happens to have an engine and
four wheels attached to it.
Besides renovating part of its Renaissance Center world
headquarters to accommodate new teams of apps developers, GM is
increasingly sending its employees to computer hackathons across
the country where budding engineers compete against each other in
all-night apps contests. Cross said one of his favorite apps to
come out of a hackathon begins with two buttons that pop up on the
touchscreen after starting the car: business and personal. If the
driver presses the business button, the app keeps track of miles
traveled and fuel consumption for use in a work-related expense
report or for tax purposes.
At another hackathon, a group of teenagers came up to GM's
engineers and asked what kinds of apps the company wanted them to
develop. When the GM engineers began talking about different
features of their latest cars, the teenagers interrupted them. "Um,
we're too young to drive," said one of the teen developers. So
their team created an app that helps their fellow teenagers learn
to drive, including onscreen lessons on parallel parking and
three-point turns. "There's nothing quite like coming at a
situation with a blank slate," says Cross.
Like most driveable computing platforms, GM's system comes with two
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The first are remote
apps that interact with the driver even when nobody's in the car.
The so-called Remote Link system can start the car, unlock it, and
turn the lights on from anywhere in the world. The system also
delivers diagnostic information, like tire pressure, onto the
The second set of apps reside within the car's onboard computer.
Cross says GM's developer ecosystem now consists of more then 3,000
freelance developers around the world, plus the in-house apps team
that the company has been ramping up in Detroit. With all the new
apps coming in, Cross says a continuing challenge is to make sure
onboard computing platforms have enough processing power to handle
all that data. "It's all about having the right hardware to support
the software," he says.