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Neumann became CEO of Opel in March, 2014 (Photo: GM)

With a new CEO, a revamped strategic plan and a strengthened commitment from parent General Motors, Opel believes it is on the road to a sustained recovery. The European GM brand has for years suffered losses and weak sales, but its newest models are finding buyers and the company is improving its position in the market. In the first five months of 2014, Opel's European market share rose to 7.2 percent from 7.0 percent a year earlier. According to its updated "Drive!2022" strategic plan, Opel aims to capture 8 percent of the market by 2022. Karl-Thomas Neumann, a former top executive at Volkswagen Group and supplier Continental, became CEO of Opel March 1, 2013. Neumann, who has a degree in electronics, spoke to automotiveIT this past summer about Opel's improved prospects, the recent announcement that GM's Onstar telematics service is coming to Europe and his vision for the connected car. The interview was first published in the July edition of the automotiveIT International Executive Report.

Mr. Neumann, everyone is talking about the networked automobile. In the future, will it no longer be the classic themes that determine the purchase of a model but rather the degree of digitization?

Classic themes such as design will continue to play an important role in every purchase decision. But we are trying to combine these themes with new aspects such as digitization. Styling speaks to the heart. It is the emotional side. On the other hand, we at Opel have the art of German engineering with values such as technology, precision, structure and quality. This is where you find our unique selling proposition. We want to be the emotional German brand.

At the Geneva Motor Show this year, you announced the intro- duction of GM's OnStar network service in Europe and characterized this as a major step on the path to connectivity. Can you define the milestones on this path for us?

I considered the Opel Adam to be an important milestone. With IntelliLink (GM's infotainment system) and Siri speech control, it is the best-networked small car on the market. More than half of all Adam models delivered in Europe are ordered with Intelli- Link. We have taken another major step forward with our intuitive infotainment system in the new Insignia. Three out of four new Insignias in Europe have IntelliLink. As of this year, the Intel- lilLink system with smartphone integration, a seven-inch color monitor and audio streaming is also available in the Astra, Ampera, Cascada, Meriva, Zafira Tourer and Mokka models.

And in the future?

The Opel Monza concept car, which caused a sensation at the last IAA in Frankfurt, shows where things are heading long-term. It is the model for future HMI systems, that is, the interface between the human being and the machine, as its interior configuration is based on the latest research findings in this area.

OnStar is not new ”“ General Motors introduced the system as far back as the mid-1990s. Was the “breakthrough” only possible with digitization or was it before its time?”¨

The market for telematics services has grown in the meantime and people’s awareness has changed. In any case, the services that we are now planning are much more targeted than they were in the past.

OnStar includes services such as emergency aid and break-down assistance. This requires a data transfer from the car. Where does Opel stand on the hotly debated issue of data ownership?

OnStar is there to improve the protection and safety of our customers. This is precisely the reason that data privacy and the protection of the private sphere are particularly important.

In concrete terms, this means...

We will naturally adhere to all applicable European data privacy rules and make it possible for our customers to select precisely the service they would like. The data will only be used for the pur- poses that were agreed upon with the customer beforehand and he can naturally prevent the collection of location data in the car at any time.

Is the next step with OnStar conceivably a link with the work- shop, which can then make service appointments on the basis of Onstar's remote-diagnostics capability?

Yes, that is conceivable. But the data will only be used for pur- poses that the customer agrees to in advance.

With the help of apps, you can listen to internet radio or even navigate in the Adam, for example. Is this low-cost form of infotainment integration Opel’s future ”“a kind of entry-level solution? Is it possible that customers really don’t want more?

With IntelliLink we are offering the latest generation of Opel infotainment systems -- and in different variations. We will continue to develop the system so we are able to offer a tailored product to many customer groups in a variety of different price ranges.

General Motors is a member of the Open Automotive Alliance, which is supposed to help integrate Android systems sensibly into the vehicle. What are you generally expecting from the Alliance with regard to integration and driver distraction?

We would like to achieve the best possible integration of smart- phones from all manufacturers and all popular systems into our infotainment systems.

Everyone wants that.

Dealing with our control elements should be as intuitive as pos- sible, no matter what accessory the customer uses in the vehicle. Of course, we continue to work on enabling the problem-free integration of future systems and new smartphone generations.

A major problem in the development of “new technologies” re- lates to the different development cycles. VW is dealing with the problem with a modular infotainment kit. How is Opel proceeding?

By using standards such as Autosar and standardized interfaces such as Bluetooth and USB, we are facing up to this challenge. In doing so, we are increasingly transferring functions into clouds or apps.

You appear to prefer an open solution that allows outside apps in the fully integrated systems in the Astra and Insignia. Is that really the right way if you think about the risk of driver distraction?

Opel’s uppermost goal is to configure our apps and infotainment systems in such a user-friendly and clearly arranged way that it never occurs to customers to pick up their mobile phone inside the car. In our IntelliLink infotainment systems, core functions, such as the activation of speech recognition, take place with remote controls from the steering wheel. Some functions are also restricted so that you can only read SMS messages or look at videos while stationary. But you can have incoming SMS mes- sages read aloud or draft them using Siri speech control. In the medium term, progress toward some form of automated driving can unburden the driver even more.

What do you think of the cloud? Services based on HTML5 can in fact be loaded into the vehicle ”“ relatively ”“ independently of the infotainment system”¨

Functions are increasingly being shifted to the cloud or to apps. As a result, Opel infotainment systems can be brought to the most current state with software updates. Once purchased, the functions of the infotainment systems do not stay at the technical level during the delivery stage over the vehicle’s entire life. The owner can even update them.

Mercedes and BMW are accelerating new mobility concepts such as car-sharing. You are also planning on entering the segment. Can you outline it to us?Ӭ

Our dealers are already involved in car rentals through Opel Rent. We are offering the cars through Tamyca, a new car-sharing company. And as Opel, we will announce new car-sharing projects in at least one European metropolitan region between now and the end of the year.

Car ownership has become a substantial cost factor. Won’t grow- ing numbers of people choose to do without a car or be forced to do without one?”¨

Opel has always made driving affordable for broad strata of the population. We are committed to this tradition. Even today we offer great value for money in all our model lines. Mobility means freedom. People want to be mobile at any time. And in most cases, only your own car can guarantee this. We’re naturally seeing a certain trend where people in large cities would rather do without a car of their own. This will increase the importance of car-sharing.

A final question: Opel has had numerous problems in recent decades. What makes you so sure that the brand has a future?

We are now systematically carrying out “Drive!2022,” our comprehensive 10-year plan. And we are enjoying the backing of our parent General Motors. We are investing about 4 billion euros solely as part of our model offensive.

And are you seeing results in the market? Or, in other words, are Opels selling better than they have done in the past?Ӭ

Our model offensive is going down extremely well with our European customers. For the first time in 14 years, we are gaining market share and are successfully occupying new segments. The Mokka, with more than 215,000 orders, is the current top-seller among the new models, and orders for the lifestyle mini-car Adam have surpassed the 80,000 mark. Opel is on the attack again. You can really see that in our many innovations. And we will have a few more arrows in our quiver in coming months, for example, the Adam Rocks. You’re in for a surprise.

Interview by Hilmar Dunker