At CES in January both Ford(s f) and General Motors(s gm) unveiled their connected car open development plans, but the two automakers couldn’t have been different in how they followed up. Ford immediately started pumping out new apps for its Sync AppLink platform, but GM kept quiet. It opened up its new developer portal to registrants, and that’s it; except for a promise to show us the fruits of its labors this fall in a few of its model year 2014 vehicles.
Despite GM’s silence, though, there’s been a lot of activity going behind the scenes in its Detroit headquarters. I recently sat down with GM’s developer ecosystem director Nick Pudar, and he detailed an ambitious and extensive plan to open up future Chevys, Buicks and Cadillacs to the development community.
GM’s not just talking about letting audio streaming and simple location-based services apps into the dashboard, it’s planning to expose engine and vehicle data and even its OnStar telematics features to its developer community. That means app builders can get access to the inner workings and technologies on an unprecedented scale, much like a smartphone or developer can delve into the core features of an Android or iOS device.
GM’S app choices are ridiculously spare today — literally in the single digits — but according to Pudar, GM has 22,000 developers in the wings waiting to populate its infotainment systems with software and make its vehicles a key component of the internet of things. We’ll just have to wait a few more months to see it.
A complete platform overhaul
One of the first things that Pudar pointed out was that GM is doing away with the disparate infotainment platforms across its vehicle lines. Chevy will still have MyLink, Cadillac will still have Cue, and Buick will still have IntelliLink, but they’ll no longer be run on separate operating systems. Developers can build one app and be assured it will work across all three vehicle lines, Pudar said.
“You can choose to have a car app that’s targeted a specific experience like the Cadillac it you want, but it’s not required,” Pudar said. The Cue system is GM’s most advanced, sporting a lot of processing power and features like capacitive touch and haptic feedback that won’t be available in the Chevy and Buick lines. If developers want to design an app to take advantage of these capabilities, Pudar said, GM plans to encourage them.
GM is also removing the smartphone from the development equation, Pudar said, making it a mere connectivity pipe. Apps that currently run in the Cadillac and Chevy rely on both a smartphone and car component — the Pandora(s p) app on your phone links to an optimized Pandora interface in the car. That dual-platform approach is the same way Ford runs its Sync system, and it definitely has it benefits. While we upgrade our smartphones every one or two years, we tend to hold onto our cars much longer. So the hardware in the car when you roll off the lot is the hardware you’re stuck with.
GM is taking the rather risky approach of making its cars self-contained devices. You will access its app store from the dashboard and all the necessary software necessary to power your app is downloaded into memory. At first smartphones will provide all the connectivity, but starting in model year 2015, GM will start embedding LTE chips that connect to AT&T’s network in all vehicles, giving drivers two connection options.
But this overhaul means there’s going to be little compatibility between new apps and GM’s older infotainment systems. GM’s new connected car strategy is definitely ambitious, but it also means it must start largely from scratch.
Connecting the car both inside and out
GM will be opening up the infotainment system to developers through a set of application programming interfaces (APIs), but that’s just the half of it, Pudar said. It’s exposing a second set of APIs that give devs access to its telematics features — basically all of the vehicle data and remote access services provided by OnStar today.
This means developers can build apps apart from the car as well as within it: apps that can unlock a car’s doors with a touch of a button, tell you if someone is driving your car and where it’s going, coordinate arrival times between different vehicles and even adjust entertainment and air conditioning settings depending on who’s driving.
A good example is what GM is doing with car sharing service RelayRides. Members can use OnStar to unlock a car they’ve reserved through a smartphone app. But if a car sharing service or rental car agency took full advantage of GM’s APIs, Pudar said, they could effectively tailor any vehicle to its intended driver at any given moment. Not only would your app unlock the car’s doors as you approached, upon starting the engine you’d find all of your navigation destinations and internet radio pre-sets preloaded.
GM’s vision of the car isn’t just a fancy infortainment system. GM is trying to embed the vehicle firmly into the internet of things — something we’ll talk about in detail at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October — creating an object that can communicate directly with you and its surroundings.
An Apple versus Android development approach
GM may be pledging to build an open environment in which any developer can frolic, but there are limits to how open GM — or any automaker — can be. The GM app store will ultimately be a controlled and curated one, and the threshold for approving car apps is going to be much higher than for the smartphone.
Pudar said every app will have to meet two specific guidelines:
- It has to meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines for distracted driving. What does that mean? No video, for one, unless it’s specifically targeted at a separate passenger screen. Anything that causes drivers’ eyes to linger to long on the dash screen or keep their hands away from the steering wheel will be a no-no.
- Every app will have to be up front about what information it collects from the vehicles, how it uses that info and what kind of access it gives to outside apps and services. Apps that play too fast and loose with vehicle owners’ privacy and the security of the car won’t get approved.
How will GM enforce these guidelines? It will literally test drive each app. Pudar said GM had hired a team of reviewers in Detroit that will run each app through its paces on a test track. Simple internet audio streaming apps could get the thumbs up quickly, but more involved apps will get more attention. “If it’s a really complicated app, it could take several days of testing,” Pudar said.
And what about those apps that meet those guidelines but compete directly against GM’s core services, say OnStar navigation and roadside assistance? Pudar was careful how he answered that question. He said he couldn’t commit one or another that GM would approve every app that met its core guidelines, but he added that trying to protect GM’s own turf would be counterproductive. GM, Pudar said, wants to encourage innovation in the car, not inhibit it.
“There may be some hesitation about some apps,” Pudad said, “but if we’ve learned anything from the tech industry it’s that the people willing to eat their own lunch are that ones who win in the end.”
There’s evidence to back Pudar’s claims up. GM is letting Apple’s (s aapl) Siri Eyes Free voice interface into its vehicles. Such a move comes with a enormous risk, one that GM’s competitor Ford was unwilling to take. He — or in Siri’s case, she — who controls the interface controls the apps.