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Siri Eyes Free, Big Data and goodbye Idiot Light: GM tech chief talks future car tech

GM interview

The car is the next frontier of mobile technology.

At least, that’s what an army of engineers product planners, and analysts believe. With consumers glued to their mobile devices, the car industry is making a huge effort to give them the same experience when they get behind the wheel.

Like any new frontier, the connected car is a place where anything goes. We sat down with Tim Nixon, Executive Director, CTO and Applications Delivery, for General Motors (he’s also head of GM’s Global Connected Consumer task force) during CE Week in New York City to discuss everything from GM’s budding partnership with Apple to the issues of distracted driving and “Big Data.”

Taking a bite of the Apple

GM recently pulled off a trick shot with its announcement of “Siri Eyes Free,” which allows drivers to use Apple’s voice command program without looking at their phones (hence the name). GM’s Chevrolet and (European) Opel brands are also two of the 12 car brands that have signed up for Apple’s “iOS in the Car.”

Car owners will be, to say the least, inconvenienced if a GM IT person shuts down their vehicles for a software update.

“We’ve been in a fairly close collaboration with Apple… for quite awhile,” Nixon said, noting earlier applications of Apple tech such as iPod integration. “It really behooves us as an industry to keep tabs on what’s going on.”

Keeping tabs is one thing, but actually bringing a product to market can be difficult because of the amount of lead time, usually around four years, required for new car development. Nixon says his engineers overcame that problem by getting early access to Siri and making the foundation for Siri Eyes Free, Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system, flexible.

Rather than taking over the car like GLaDOS’ twin sister, Siri Eyes Free adds a layer of Apple-specific connectivity to MyLink. Nixon sees phone projection tech like this as the logical path for Apple as it migrates onto car dashboards.

“I don’t think Apple will make as deep an incursion into embedded [tech] as other have,” he said. This would take Apple in a different direction than Microsoft, which developed both hardware and software for Ford’s Sync infotainment system, which is also billed as a way for drivers to use smartphone functions without having to actually touch their phones.

Not that GM is completely ruling out embedded tech like Sync, or the built-in media system Tesla chose for the Model S.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or,” Nixon said.

The future is wired

Siri Eyes FreeSiri Eyes Free will launch later this year on the Chevy Sonic and Spark, the Bowtie brand’s two cheapest models. Why launch this cutting edge tech on two economy cars? Nixon says it all comes down to demographics.

The Sonic and Spark are targeted at younger buyers who, naturally, are more interested in and comfortable with technology.

“Millennials are the ones going after those vehicles. They’re the ones that have tech in their purse or pocket,” Nixon said, “20-somethings aren’t buying Cadillacs.”

However, Nixon sees connectivity moving beyond Time magazine’s least-favorite generation. He said that in five years, connectivity has jumped from 25th to 4th place on the list of important features ranked by customers in GM surveys.

“People are going to look at a car and say, “I don’t want it unless I can connect with it,’” he said.

Connectivity could even be tailored to individual vehicles. GM already uses tech to allow owners to monitor their Chevy Volts’ state of charge through an app, and Nixon doesn’t see any reason that that same tech couldn’t enable a Silverado-driving small business owner to conduct transactions from the cab, or a Corvette driver to secure bragging rights by posting lap times to Facebook.

Nixon was quick to emphasize that social media-equipped sports cars aren’t on the drawing board right now, but what will the world look like once they do hit the road?

Dealing with distraction

2013 chevy volt model technologyAs cars become filled with more and more gadgetry, driver distraction will become more of an issue. Nixon believes the problem can be mitigated through intuitive design and, sometimes, limiting what people can actually do while driving.

“We have a responsibility to make a system more intuitive and less distracting, Nixon said.

Currently, GM navigation systems don’t allow drivers to enter text while the car is moving, and Siri Eyes Free will not perform functions, such as displaying a webpage, that require the driver to look at his or her phone.

GM also plans to leverage voice control and its current OnStar telematics system to keep distraction to a minimum, Nixon said.

Tech can be confusing to operate in a car, but at least functions like navigation and POI can provide relevant information. Is it really necessary for people to be checking their Facebook statuses while driving, though?

Actually, Nixon believes social media does have some utility in the car. GM is working on a way to connect Facebook with its own RemoteLink app to allow drivers to find the places their friends are hanging out at and quickly get directions. This system is in the “pre-beta” stage, Nixon said.

“Big Data”

Modern cars are full of sensors that allow their electronic brains to keep engines running smoothly, adjust suspension settings, and prime active safety systems. They also collect tons of data. What does GM plan on doing with all of it?

GM policymakers will have to carefully consider who has access to customer information…

“Demystifying the check engine light,” is high on the list of priorities, Nixon said. The beacon otherwise known as the “Idiot Light” is an annoyance to most people, but Nixon said telling car owners the specific cause of each warning could make it useful, and lessen anxiety if the cause turns out to be a loose gas cap and not an oil-starved engine about to weld itself together.

Tech companies use the mountains of data they collect to learn more about their customers; does GM plan to do more than explain check engine lights to customers? Nixon said the flow of data could indeed go both ways.

“We already get some benefit from the monthly data we collect,” he said, referring to information gleaned from OnStar subscribers.

Well, there’s your problem

GM RemoteLink AppSmartphones and tablets aren’t expected to last very long, but cars are. The durability of mechanical components has been steadily increasing, and no future driver is going to want to be stuck with a car that has an out-of-date operating system.

Nixon says over-the-air software updates could help keep older cars connected. Rival Ford was the first car company to attempt this on a large scale; mailing owners flash drives with new software for its MyFord Touch system last year.

However, this could create some unique privacy concerns of its own. While remote updating is technically possible, Nixon said GM policymakers will have to carefully consider who has access to customer information, and how updates should be conducted.

Car owners will be, to say the least, inconvenienced if a GM IT person shuts down their vehicles for a software update.

As with all cars, though, everything will eventually go out of date.

“Some elements of the hardware are so innate to the car that we won’t be in a position to update,” Nixon said. Hopefully, those cars will have logged many miles before that happens.