OnStar's Nick Pudar Discusses The Future Of The Company And Vehicle App Technology (Interview)

OnStar is a vehicle app that provides features including hands free calling, turn-by-turn navigation and in-vehicle security. But in the growing arena of car app technology, where does OnStar currently stand, and where is it headed in the future? iTech Post headed over to TechCrunch's Disrupt NY event and sat down to talk with VP of OnStar Strategy and New Business Development Nick Pudar to discuss these and other questions, including the future of vehicle app technology.

iTech Post: Where do you feel OnStar stands right now and what are the company's goals for the future?

Nick Pudar: OnStar has been a key part of GM for the past 17 years plus and our customers are excited about the services we provide and its core and safety and security diagnostics and navigation and we're going to continue offering that spectrum of services and there will be improvements over time. But there's a pretty solid, stable aspect of it. What GM is doing lately is introducing an entirely new way of bringing functionality and capability into vehicles and we've created what's essentially an app-based framework for vehicles so that even after the point of purchase you can download new applications into your vehicle, kind of like we're accustomed to with smartphones and tablets. These new apps are going to have much better functionality and usability for the drivers and occupants. And you can consider OnStar as a very premium app that will be part of the constellation but the OnStar business has been great for the corporation and has been great for our customers, so we're going to continue with it.

iTech Post: How about the transition to 4G LTE? How are you taking advantage of that?

NP: Well, starting in our model year 15 vehicles it will be built into our vehicles and so the connection is going to be available to support a broad range of applications that either are downloaded that our customers want from third party developers or that connectivity will be leveraged to enhance things that GM brings to vehicles in the future over time.

iTech Post: Can you tell me about the operating system for OnStar?

NP: We use our own back office infrastructure to support the business. Again, it's been built up over a very long period of time and it very acutely supports our advisors, our live advisors that provide services for our customers and the new framework that we're building in essentially is a browser-based solution. For the apps that are in vehicles it lets developers build with industry standards, HTML5 and JavaScript and so that's a much more hospitable environment for third party developers. Our OnStar business is proprietary and it's been built up over the years.

iTech Post: That leads to my next question, which is about the developer API. What sort of data is available now and what do you have coming?

NP: There's a broad range of capabilities that our full set of APIs offer and I need to make a distinction because there's really two categories; there are two types of them. One is in-vehicle APIs. These are those APIs that are available to apps that reside inside the vehicle. For developing those apps we have an SDK. We have an emulator that developers can use to develop their apps and those APIs access vehicle functionality, vehicle data, vehicle access and there's a broad range of those things; actually, too numerous to mention, but it's all documented on our developer portal at developer.gm.com. And so that's one category of APIs. The second category of APIs is one that we call remote APIs and these are leveraging the OnStar connectivity so that apps on smartphones and tablets and companies' webservers, with of course customer consent and all of the security that we have, can access information from a vehicle when they're not in the vehicle. And so we're seeing a broad range of interesting ideas emerging from developers that leverage the SDK and in vehicle apps we're seeing some interesting things that are emerging that are going to leverage the remote APIs and these apps will reside on smartphones and tablets. And then we're seeing interesting ideas that are emerging that are going to leverage both, and so more to come on those as they unveil themselves in the marketplace.

iTech Post: Can you give any examples of some of those ideas?

NP: I can't talk about specific ones that are being worked on but there's an interesting category of location-based services and ideas that can help you in your preparation and planning when you're not in your car and it would take advantage of being able to push destinations into nav systems but then you can also enhance the consumption of that information when it's in your car through the in-vehicle app so there's going to be some fun things that emerge in that space.

iTech Post: What is your opinion on the role of apps in vehicles in terms of how they'll be used and their potential for assisting the growth of the auto industry; how they will be integrated and how that will evolve?

NP: I see apps becoming a core component of how our digital lives are evolving and so in my life I have a lot of digital solutions; I have apps in those various digital solutions and I am expecting that they're working seamlessly in all aspects of my life, so what we're doing at GM is helping bring customers' digital lifestyles into their vehicle and also, by providing the tools for the developers, an opportunity to bring the vehicle into their digital lifestyle and providing some single solutions. And so what these emerging and evolving apps are going to do is they're going to make vehicles better, they're going to actually in many cases make vehicles safer to operate because you can now do the things that you otherwise might have had to sort out over the telephone or sort out in other fashions and that sometimes just added time and stress and inconvenience. So we're going to try to make the vehicle driving experience a better one, a safer one and provide you the relevant digital connectivity in your life as you need it. So in the whole arena of music consumption, there are going to be new waves of innovative solutions that are emerging to fill the time that you're in a vehicle. Americans spend approximately 450 hours per year in their vehicles. And you can listen to news and  you can listen to music but the nature of how the news is categorized and packaged and delivered to you and how the music can be arranged and packaged and delivered is going to see a wave of creativity.

iTech Post: And have you enjoyed your time working for GM/OnStar?

NP: Absolutely. It's been great; it's been fun; it's always fun to be part of something where you're pushing the envelope of possibility and capability and the connectivity has allowed us to do all kinds of interesting things over time and right now it feels like that growth of opportunity is growing exceptionally quickly.

So we've been participating in some hack-a-thons here over the course of the past few months and it's really exciting to see the kinds of clever concepts and clever ideas and unique solutions that are emerging and the one here at TechCruch Disrupt in New York City is a lot of fun. We had about 12 teams start building apps. Actually, eight of them finished and submitted their solutions and we offered two prizes. One of the prizes was for an app called Gas Metrics and this app would monitor the lane in which you are consuming fuel in the vehicle if you're a really heavy-footed driver and you're really driving aggressively you might not get as good gas economy, but it also leveraged that knowledge of the gas consumption rate with a setting that you as a driver could fill in such as what level of fuel tank do you not want to get below. So for example a friend of mine he doesn't mind if he gets to fumes. If he's on the red line and it's running on fumes he's perfectly happy to wait until that point to fill his tank. I'm more of a quarter tank person. I get to a quarter tank and I start getting a little nervous; I don't want to get stuck in long traffic and be late. So what this app does is it lets me set my threshold where I want the gas tank to not get below and then it'll monitor my driving and if I'm on a long highway and there's not a gas station for 20 miles and it really is going to be time for me to fill up it will prompt me that you should start thinking about filling up. "Here are some gas station options that are available along your ride." Then I can see that becoming more focused on saving money as well so it was a clever idea and it was one of the prize winners that we had. And the other prize winner that we had, which also happened to finish in second place in the overall competition among all 183 teams were some young teenagers, some of which don't even drive cars yet. They built an app called Learn To Drive and what this app does is it gives audible instructions for various maneuvers that are part of driving tests and driving instruction series. It also accessed available information through web service to find out what the speed limit is of the road that you're on based upon the GPS location, and if the vehicle happened to be going faster than the speed limit it would prompt the driver with that knowledge. And it also logged driving hours, which many states' license tests require. It logged how many daytime hours and how many night time hours and it really did a nice job of putting together a summary of the progress made toward their license requirements. And it would also summarize the information and send the parents a summary in a summary report email and it was a great little app. And the judges loved it; they came in second place and they won our prize as well.

iTech Post: I remember my parents manually logging my driving hours.

NP: That's what I did for my kids. Absolutely. So this is cool. You download the app; it had the great maneuvers and instructions on how to parallel park and other things like that so it was a really clever idea; something that we hadn't thought about; we hadn't considered.

iTech Post: Is there anything else you would like to add?

NP: I would say that the way GM is approaching this we're sort of simultaneously focusing our attention on what is great for customers and the experience they're going to have in the vehicles and recognize that safety comes first; safe operation of the vehicle is important. And so, at the same time, we're working very closely with the developers in mind and understanding how they think and what's important to them and making sure they have the right tools and resources and processes in place so that they can take their great ideas and bring it to our customers so that everybody wins and General Motors has put forward the resources and the talent to get all this done and it's an exciting time. And if there are any developers out there, visit us at developer.gm.com.

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