OnStar leads the way with in-car innovation

Detroit is becoming a national hub for tech jobs and innovation, GM and OnStar are leading the charge. Photo: Business Genome

DETROIT, September 26, 2012 — Henry Ford famously said “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” 103 years later in-car innovation is changing the very way we look at the automobile. In an era of rapid technological innovation, automakers are keeping up with the times by making creative applications for drivers. 

American automakers are growing and innovation is spurring the growth. Detroit has been named the fastest growing market for tech jobs. Everyone loves a good comeback story and Michigan is the comeback state. 

GM and OnStar are taking the lead in innovation. Wanting to learn more about in-car innovation I spoke to Nick Pudar, OnStar Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. The answers below highlight an ever-evolving auto industry and exciting time for innovation. 

1. What innovations at OnStar are you working on currently?

A lot of our future innovations will be based on the fact that we will soon be opening up our proprietary API (Application Programming Interface) to select third party developers. There’s a ton of creativity and potential in leveraging the vehicle’s built-in connectivity, and working with developers will unleash a broad range of innovative new services. 

The platform that we’ve built will enable an extensive range of apps and services, some of these will have a smaller niche customer base but meaningful nonetheless, and some will have much broader appeal. In working with third party developers we’ll be able to accelerate the innovative creation of these new concepts, and be able to bring customers a number of meaningful apps and services to choose from.

2. What can the introduction of 4G LTE bring to vehicles?

4G LTE first and foremost brings a significantly higher bandwidth to the vehicle. This will not only improve the responsive of the current and future services we bring to vehicles, but the richness and immersion of the experience will also be significantly enhanced. By richness, I mean that the vehicle will become much more context aware, and be able to render relevant interfaces and controls that are appropriate for the situation. So, this enhanced speed and richness will improve the way content is delivered to the vehicle from both an aesthetics and functional standpoint.

4G will allow for streaming video content to passengers of the vehicle, both with embedded devices in the vehicle and devices the customers bring in themselves, like an iPad. It also affords the vehicle the opportunity to become a Wi-Fi hotspot, or for a company to create their own private in-vehicle cloud for content management.

Over the last couple years we’ve demonstrated some of this potential with fully functional research vehicles. It’s our way to push the envelope in showing what it will take to bring this into vehicles and show what’s possible in the future. By building these research vehicles it also stretches our exploration into how to create the best and safest in-vehicle customer experience.

3. Do you think more innovation is happening in-car or under the hood right now?

The amount of innovation that takes place under the hood is breathtaking and quite frankly a lot of what takes place under the hood, many people may never fully comprehend. A vehicle is a highly complex system of interacting parts, and the challenges of combining things like fuel efficiency, safety, convenience, affordability, etc. are quite daunting. So a result of this intricacy is that there needs to be a continuous stream of innovation in the vehicle. But innovation under the hood has been going on since the beginning of the automobile and will continue to do so.

Connectivity in the vehicle, or in-car innovation, is something that’s relatively new and as a result we’re experiencing a very high level of inventive concepts being tested. So, because of the novelty of this field it’s getting a lot of attention in the industry and it does have a very high degree of innovation right now. As opposed to ‘under the hood’, most of these innovations are going to have a direct interaction with customers.

4. Can you explain OnStar’s involvement in Smart Grid?

The goal of our smart grid involvement is to bring a lot more visibility and control to the utilities and electric companies. This in turn will allow the customer to have optimal energy efficiency, best cost efficiency and, at the grid-level, network efficiency.

Using the Chevrolet Volt, combined with OnStar’s cloud based platform called ATOMS, we are able to provide the only wireless bridge between EVs and the grid. Through this bridge we’ve been able to launch a number of Smart Grid solutions. One solution that is available for drivers right now is our RemoteLink Mobile App which in addition to other functions, lets Volt owners manage charging and choose to charge when rates are lowest.

We also have a number of smart grid APIs which we recently opened up for select developers, utilities and energy companies to build off of. These APIs consist of:

Demand Response: This solution connects customers to utilities and electric companies that have intelligent energy management products. These companies can use OnStar to manage energy use for Volt customers who opt in for the service. This future service allows the customer to save money on energy costs while enabling more efficient use of the electric grid.

Time-of-Use: OnStar can receive dynamic time-of-use pricing from utilities and notify Volt owners of the rate plan offers via email. Owners will be able to use OnStar to load the rate plans directly into their vehicle and access them to schedule charging during lower-rate periods.

Electric Vehicle Info: OnStar also sends and receives EV data that helps utility providers without having to interface with the vehicle’s electric vehicle supply equipment. This includes location-based EV data that identifies charging locations and determines potential load scenarios. This will give the utility better insight for forecasting demand, setting rates and determining the best location for charging infrastructure. This also enables services like controlling certain home energy systems from the vehicle.

Aggregated Services: This solution allows electric service providers to manage the charging of participating vehicles in a given geographic area, with customer consent. This includes the ability to control charging on a large amount of EVs simultaneously. This enables the ability for Volt drivers to charge when renewable energy is available on the grid. A Volt can be configured to favor charging when there is renewable energy in the grid.  This is the first time that customers will have a real demand signal for renewable energy.

5. So how can you see these Smart Grid solutions benefitting drivers in the real world?

Solutions like this help us recognize that more and more things in our lives can be connected, and we’re exploring smart and relevant ways to leverage that connectivity.  One of the ways we’re doing this is by shifting the focus of energy and cost efficiency to benefit not just me and my Volt, but a whole neighborhood as well. We recently partnered with a company called Pecan Street Inc., which is testing many clean energy, connected solutions on real homes and families in a community in Austin, Texas. GM has made a number of Chevrolet Volts available on a priority basis to these families, which will allow us to test how electric vehicles can most efficiently serve a whole community. 

An example of this is something we call “smart demand response”. Say for example my friend and I both live in this community and we both drive a Volt. And say my Volt is 90% charged and my friend’s is only 10% charged. Well if there’s a time when the grid is overstressed due to too much activity, and an electric utility needs to temporarily stop one vehicle from charging, they could chose to stop my Volt because it’s almost full, and my friend needs the charge more than I do.

Another example of what’s possible is integrating my Volt’s charging activities with my personal calendar.  Let’s say that I get home from work and plug in my Volt, and that is it set to start charging in the middle of the night during off-peak pricing. However, my wife has added something to my calendar that says I have to pick up my daughter at an event later in the evening. Based on the location of this event, my car could need an additional charge to get to there and back; so it would automatically recognize this and start charging. Therefore, with the Volt being tied to my calendar the car could eventually learn when to charge based on my schedule.  That is a much more connected way to optimize energy and cost efficiency.

Those are just a couple examples of what is possible with smart grid solutions today.

6. Can you explain what ATOMS is?

ATOMS stands for Advanced Telematics Operating Management System. It is OnStar’s cloud-based platform, and currently the most powerful automotive cloud platform in the market today – connecting to more than six million OnStar customers. This platform is the way we deliver everyday services to our customers, whether it’s through GPS-based services like Turn-by-Turn Navigation, through crash-sensing safety features or through mobile devices. So, when I mentioned we’re opening our API to select developers, we’re essentially giving them secure access to different elements of ATOMS.

7. What does your recent partnership with RelayRides entail?

RelayRides is the first nationwide peer-to-peer car sharing marketplace. It’s a company that connects people who need a car for a short period of time with vehicle owners whose rides would otherwise go unused, in exchange for an hourly payment. Last fall GM decided to engage in a relationship with RelayRides, allowing millions of GM vehicle owners to leverage the OnStar system in their vehicles to rent out their idle cars through the RelayRides marketplace.

The way this works is that RelayRides used our mobile-based APIs to build their own car-sharing app that allows owners of OnStar-enabled GM vehicles to share their vehicles without the hassle of installing expensive aftermarket hardware or having to meet a renter to hand off keys. Car owners with OnStar can simply leave their keys locked in their car and RelayRides’ renters are now able to locate and unlock these cars simply by using their mobile phones. RelayRides estimates that people can make up to $650 a month sharing their idle car.

Jeff Barrett is a recognized leader in public relations, experiential marketing and social media. Co-Founder of Status Creative, 2011 PRNewswire Award Winner for “Best Use of Video In Social Media” and record holder for Most Strikeouts in Tee-Ball.  


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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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