Infotainment key to the resurgence of GM and the American auto industry.

An insight into infotainment from Sara LeBlanc, Global Program Manager for GM.

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2012 — A week away from the election and once again there’s a lot of discussion about the American auto industry. Four years ago, it was a much different conversation. It was a discussion about bankruptcy and bailouts. Today, it’s a story of resurgence and innovation. 

There have been a lot of contributing factors to this comeback story. Yet, it all had to start with making American cars competitive. Innovation and better fuel economy have helped make this possible. 

Innovations in connectivity within cars, especially with touch screens, are creating a brighter future for GM. Last month, GM loaned me a Chevy Spark to test drive and play around with their new MyLink infotainment system. I liked it enough to dig deeper and ask Sara LeBlanc, the Global Program Manager for GM Infotainment more questions about infotainment and how it is adapting to meet consumer needs. 

On a side note, I also learned how to drive a manual by myself with a little help from my friends on Twitter. At times, it was terrifying. At times, I stalled in the middle of a downtown. Yet, I managed to make it to a meeting and stop for Subway in the first day. The next challenge will be the highway.  

1. What technology is offered in the new Chevy Spark mini-car?

I think that the technology I am most excited about is the new MyLink infotainment system that is going into the 2013MY Spark 1LT and 2LT packages.  It is a full color, 7” touch screen that pulls in some of the best features our customers love about their smartphones–their music, their phone contacts, and their apps (Pandora, Stitcher, and the new BringGo NAV app launching later this year).  This new radio is a perfect fit for the Spark customer.  

2. Now that infotainment systems are becoming more standard in vehicles, what do you think they will bring to the auto industry and their customers?

As the technology and penetration of smartphones continues to improve, we are seeing a trend where more and more of our customers are relying on their smartphones for everyday use.  Every day you can see drivers talking on their phones, or balancing smartphones on their knees to navigate.  At GM, we have designed our infotainment systems to be simple, safe, and connected.  

We are utilizing more of the smartphone features our customers love into these infotainment systems so that our customers can access these features in a more safe way than some of them are doing now.  I believe this trend will continue, and I think the best infotainment systems will be the ones that do this in the simplest way.  I think our customers are looking for an incredible driving experience that keeps them connected at the same time.

3. What is the future of infotainment as automakers continues to adapt to customers’ wants/needs?

I think that this is going to be some very exciting territory as this space is constantly changing.  The apps and features our customers want today are not necessarily the same apps and features that they will want in a year or two from now.  This gets further complicated by the fact that the time required to design and build a new vehicle is about 5 years, and our customers keep their vehicles on average about 5 to 7 years.  

In contrast, new smartphones are constantly coming out, and most of our customers refresh their smartphone about every year to two years.  The cycle times simply do not line up. The challenge is finding out a way to pull in the newest features of the newest smartphones into our connected systems in such a way that our customers feel like that their infotainment system is not outdated.  

4. Purchasing a car based on infotainment accessories is becoming a critical deciding factor when car buyers shop. What is Chevy doing to further improve and develop the connected vehicle while still keeping driver safety top of mind?

All of our MyLink systems have been designed with Driver Distracted regulations in mind. The Spark’s MyLink radio has integrated various design elements that help reduce the time it takes a customer to find the different features on the screen.  Things like font size, button spacing, contrasting colors, and the numbers of items in a list have all been carefully considered to make navigating the screens very intuitive and easy.  

As new infotainment systems are developed, these same design guidelines, as well as new ways to incorporate our customer’s smartphones, are brought together to create a design that is simple yet innovative.  

5. Your perspective on infotainment is described with this motto: “Smart Phone, Dumb Radio.” Why is that?

I started using this motto as a way to describe how the MyLink system works in the new Chevy Spark.  Unlike other infotainment systems, all of the connected features of this radio are truly run from the customer’s smartphone.  The customer’s phone contacts are not transferred to the radio.  When the smartphone is connected, the phone contacts are displayed on the MyLink screen, but they are not stored there.  

If you update a phone number during the day on your phone, this new number will be displayed on the MyLink screen the very next time you connect.  Similarly, when the customer launches an app like Pandora or Stitcher, the MyLink screen displays all of the favorite stations associated with the smartphone that is connected.  When I connect my smartphone to the MyLink radio, my favorite stations will appear.  

When you connect your smartphone to the same MyLink radio, your favorite stations will appear.  Nothing has been saved to the radio, it is simply a display for what is saved on your smartphone.  That’s where I came up with “Smartphone, dumb radio”.  It seemed like an easy way to describe to our customers what is different about the Spark MyLink infotainment system.



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Jeff Barrett

Jeff Barrett is an experienced columnist and business leader. He has been named Business Insider’s #1 Ad Executive on Twitter, a Forbes Top 50 Influencer In Social Media and has previously written for Mashable and The Detroit Free Press. 



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