GM's Abram: “If we get the infrastructure right, we can react to everything." (Photo: A. Bongard)

General Motors, like most of its competitors, is embracing new technologies as customers increasingly look for new and different personal-mobility products. “The convergence of connectivity, vehicle electrification and evolving customer needs demands new solutions,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a keynote address at the CES consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in early January. Barra also promised to continue the rollout of new initiatives. North America’s largest car group earlier this month unveiled a new full electric vehicle, the Bolt, which will have a driving range of 200 miles. It also announced on the eve of the CES that it is investing 500 million dlrs in Lyft, a fast-growing ride-sharing service. And just a few days ago GM launched a new car-sharing brand ”“ Maven ”“ which groups all of the carmaker’s programs in this area under one brand.

GM is confident that it has a strong starting position in the race for new mobility offerings. That’s at least in part because the company already kicked off its connected-car strategy 20 years ago with the launch of its OnStar emergency call system. More recently, GM added 4G connectivity to all its cars, in a move to stay ahead of the competition. At the Detroit auto show in early January, Phil Abram, GM’s chief infotainment officer, spoke to automotiveIT about the carmaker’s strategic approach to changing needs and its plans for the near and medium-term future.

When we see all this new technology entering the car and the industry redefining its mobility offering, is all this just a way to capture a new generation?What’s happening is not an age thing, but it’s more about where you live. If you live in a city ”“ and that’s where you see more millennials moving ”“ you have more alternatives available to you. Urbanization is a real trend, which is one of the reasons we are embarking on things such as car sharing. But it’s not an either-or situation. Some days people will want their own cars, and other days they will want other options.

Are carmakers well positioned to cater to the changing mobility needs?I cannot speak for the industry as a whole, but we at GM are. The changes are about how people interact with vehicles and with the world around them. But at the end of the day, we’re still talking about how we can move you from here to there, safely, securely and reliably. Getting the car right is key, whether its your own car, a rideshare or an autonomous vehicle.

So how do you characterize the changes at GM?If we just kept doing what we have done in the past, we would be left behind. In a changing world, you have to leverage what you know. Take a relative newcomer like Tesla. It still takes them five or six years to bring a car to market. (High-tech visionary) Marc Andreessen said in 2011 that software would eat the world. Software will never eat this industry because we are a physical industry. But we have to pay attention, anticipate and apply what we have learned over the years. GM has done that by rolling out LTE in 2.4 million vehicles worldwide. We also have the broadest adoption of Apple Carplay and Android Auto. And we invested in Lyft. Everything we do says we understand things are changing and that we have to change or run the risk of being left behind.

Autonomous driving is today’s industry buzzword. Where does connectivity come into this?Connectivity is the underlying technical enabler for the other three game changers we have identified: car sharing, autonomous driving and alternative propulsion. You cannot have an autonomous vehicle without connectivity.

And are you concerned about the digital maps that you will need now that the biggest supplier, Here, has been acquired by a German premium-car consortium?We have a couple of suppliers of maps and mapping applications. We do have a relationship with Here and the commercial agreement with them is fine. We announced last week that we will do some high-precision mapping with Mobileye. Maps are really important and it’s great if we can find the right partners and suppliers. It’s not something we need to own.

How different are the connectivity requirements from one region of the world to the next?When it comes to the car, 90 pc of the world is the same. Making a phone call in China, in Germany or in Omaha, Nebraska, is pretty much the same. But 10 pc is very different and understanding this and getting it right is what makes a car feel local. Making a good system means focusing on that 10 pc without having to tear up the other 90 pc.

Can you give an example of such a 10 pc difference?Take navigation in China, where you often have four roads on top of each other. You better know which one of those roads you’re on. It’s something nobody cares much about in the US because you hardly have such elevated roads. How people navigate, how they enter addresses can differ and to give the system a natural feel you have to be able to cater to those national preferences.

What will the connected car and connected infotainment look like in 10 years?The best thing is that I don’t have to know the answer to that question. We’re building platforms that will allow us to decide and react more quickly. Bu we don’t have to anticipate what will happen 10 years from now. We need to get the infrastructure right and that will allow us to react to everything with ever shortening lead times.

In 2013 GM started rolling out 4G in all its cars. How big a factor has this been in attracting buyers of your cars?When buy a 4G equipped vehicle, you have to agree to have a connected vehicle. More than 99 pc of people agree. With our RemoteLink mobile app we registered 96 million interactions last year alone in the US and Canada. People are using our connected services to start their cars, access vehicle diagnostics, locate their cars, make sure tires are pressurized. And we see the availability of in-car WiFi as a differentiator, especially with millennials, because nobody has as broad a deployment as we do.

barra-chev-bolt-naias-2016-300x200 GM's Barra answers press questions after unveiling the Bolt at the Detroit auto show (Photo: GM)

What strikes me at a show like CES is that none of these innovations will be exclusive for very long, including in-car WiFi. How do you stay ahead?A lot of brands talk about offering WiFi, but many don’t have it yet. We have 2.4 million LTE-connected vehicles on the road today. The competition says it is catching up, but we’ve been offering OnStar for a long time and have 500 patents related to networked cars. This is not something you can do overnight. You can bolt a modem onto a car, but that’s different from interacting with the rest of a vehicle’s systems and understanding what it’s like to run a reliable, mission-critical and safety service 24-by-seven 365 days a year.

You’ve been offering an aftermarket OnStar product for several years. Are people buying this?We’re offering new services and capabilities to cars sold two or three years ago. We’re not addressing all cars. I used to work at (streaming audio specialist) Sonos, which built a platform that is not outdated and can be upgraded over time. We want to bring the same to the vehicle with our infotainment and OnStar systems.

GM, then, will offer infotainment and safety systems that will be upgradeable in the future?We’ve been updating the OnStar module for a number of years. What we are really delivering is cloud services. The heavy lifting is done in the cloud. Take our driver assessment function, where we pull the data from the vehicle and send back the assessment from the cloud. Dealer maintenance notification also is a cloud-based service.

At the CES consumer electronic show in Las Vegas there was, again, a big increase in automotive activity. As cars become more dependent on hardware and software, is there still room for traditional auto shows?There will always be auto shows. The big difference between consumer electronics devices and cars is that people have an emotional connection to their vehicles. They give names to their cars and that’s something people in the CE industry would die for. You don’t give your TV a name, there’s no Concours d’Elegance for old TVs and cellphones. The car will retain somewhat of a cult-like status. And we want to enhance that status by applying lots of new technologies.

-Interview: Arjen Bongard