GM Leans on OnStar, Looks to Social Networks


General Motors’ OnStar subsidiary is going in for a giant swing at boosting the automaker’s image as an innovator. GM announced late Tuesday that it is “relaunching” the OnStar brand. After testing the waters with digital services for the Chevy Volt enabled by OnStar, GM is now putting the system center stage in a massive new marketing push. GM is also continuing an effort to expand its reach beyond safety and security services to information, entertainment and social networks.

The OnStar team has developed a machine-to-machine telematics system, dubbed Advanced Telematics Operations Management System, or ATOMS. This refactored architecture, according to GM, provides the foundation for a new Facebook application that would allow OnStar subscribers to update their Facebook status from behind the wheel through audio recordings, and also listen to news feed messages through the OnStar Virtual Advisor service.

In addition, the company is working on voice-based text messaging, slapping a new sub-brand, “MyLink,” on its mobile phone applications, and kicking off a competition for “voice-enabled” applications built by college students studying engineering, interaction design and human-computer interaction. (Robert Scoble will be one of the judges.)

According to OnStar Senior Architect Rajiv Sondhi, the company plans to launch a beta version of the Facebook app with about 20,000 OnStar users, and there’s potential for similar connections with Twitter, Foursquare and user-generated news sites like CNN iReport. Noting that it took 5-10 people about a month to bring the Facebook app from conception to beta, Sondhi said, “The whole point is we can do something really fast.”

GM has filed for 767 patents related to OnStar service, and received 162 patents so far, according to Tim Nixon, executive director of engineering services. Over the last few years, he said, the group’s pace has accelerated to one patent application every six days, and the company wants to put all that intellectual property to work. Part of the idea, he explained, is to make OnStar “something people will use every day,” rather than just “waiting for a crash to happen.”

This falls in line with the strategy laid out in GM’s S-1 filing last month. Among the eight areas of competitive strength GM has listed in the document is a “commitment to new technologies,” as exemplified by the Chevy Volt (touted throughout the S-1) and the OnStar system. OnStar, GM writes, “creates a connection to the customer and a platform for future infotainment initiatives.” The automaker believes its OnStar service and “partnerships with companies such as Google,” (s GOOG) (GM is tapping Google Maps for OnStar and working on an app for phones running on Google’s Android operating system) places it in a strong “position to deliver safety, security, navigation and connectivity systems and features.”

OnStar is clearly pushing for a branded, controlled environment brought to you by the auto maker, but these are early days in the emergence of connected cars as platforms for innovation. If cars function more like smartphones, with a web connection and an open platform on which developers can build applications, it opens the possibility for a wide and deep pool of services helping drivers better manage their use of fuel, and down the road, their battery charge.

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