12M connected cars gives General Motors a massive IoT fleet

OnStar has morphed into a powerful connectivity platform that is enabling GM to pursue a host of innovative vehicle enhancements

steve schwinke
General Motors

Steve Schwinke has worked on OnStar at GM in a variety of roles for some 20 years, watching the service evolve from a customer benefit into a full fledged connectivity mesh that helps the automotive giant improve its vehicles.  Now Director of Advanced Development, Schwinke recently talked to Network World Editor in Chief John Dix about OnStar as an IoT platform.

How has OnStar evolved over the years?

OnStar started as safety, security and peace of mind for customers, and we have a rich history of that and continue to deliver those services today, but we had a big transformation about 12 years ago when we started moving towards the digital world. When the digital hardware came out we started leveraging vehicle data to do more things beyond those core services, and that was really around trying to provide better insights into how vehicles are performing and trying to build a better product moving forward.

For example, in the last couple of years you’ve seen us start to use data to give customers more knowledge about their vehicle.  We mine vehicle data to try to understand potential problems before they occur so we can give customers proactive alerts.  That’s the journey we’re on. We’re trying to do proactive and reactive at the same time to provide more value to customers. How can we build better products and what kinds of services can we leverage from that data that’s coming out of the car?

How many connected cars do you have at this point?

We have about 12 million connected vehicles on the road today, and 4.5 million of those are 4G LTE connected vehicles.


And we’re collecting billions of pieces of data from our GM vehicles.  But I want to point out we are complying with privacy and legal requirements.  My team and all the teams here that engage in data are strongly connected with the legal staff, and so everything we do is well vetted and understood and communicated to customers.  That’s one of our sensitive points.

How has collecting data from cars helped you improve the product?

We’ve been doing this for over a decade now and we’ve matured our ability to really understand how to pull data from the vehicle.  There are 40 to 80 computing devices in our vehicles -- we call them ECUs, electronic control units – and it is not trivial to connect to those devices and get information.  We’ve learned over the years and have an enormous amount of flexibility in terms of data extraction.

We started with the OnStar vehicle diagnostic email more than a decade ago, where we send customers a monthly report about how their vehicle is performing, how their vehicle’s subsystems are doing.  That makes the vehicle ownership experience that much easier for customers.

From there it grew into, “How do we provide better diagnostic capabilities?”  Now if you see a potential issue going on with your vehicle, you simply hit the OnStar button and a trained advisor will query the vehicle and see if there’s a trouble code and advise the customer on what action to take. Again, that takes a lot of the ownership worry away from the customer.

From there we grew into diagnostic alerts, where if something happens on your car we notify you proactively.  And that naturally migrates into how we proactively look at how the vehicle is performing so we can anticipate problems before they occur.  We’ve launched that technology in a few vehicles today and it continues to mature.  You basically have to analyze information from the car on every ignition cycle and look for anomalous behavior.

We’ve also been working with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) on various initiatives, one of which I call the road to autonomous.  We have had crash imminent braking and forward collision alert systems on GM vehicles for quite some time, where we’re providing the driver feedback about potential collisions before they occur. 

But we can study how well those systems are performing and, even more importantly, how the customer responds to the alert.  How quick are they to respond when it’s active feedback versus visual feedback versus audio feedback alerting them to a potential collision?  That was done with the full consent of the customer because we had to use location information, but without any special hardware in the car because basically we used OnStar to help us understand these systems better. 

We’re in the middle of a study right now where, instead of just alerts, braking is applied automatically and steering is automatically adjusted in case you start to go into another lane without using your blinker.  We’re in an active year-long study to see how those systems are performing and we’re doing it with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as UMTRI. 

Internally, do look at this as a big Internet of Things environment?

My team looks at it that way because that’s our business.  It’s a flywheel effect.  We continue to build momentum in harnessing the power of the connected car at General Motors, and we are so far out ahead of everyone else with 12 million connected cars.

For example, look how we used connectivity to help redefine the user experience when we launched the Volt back in 2011.  That’s when we launched the OnStar mobile application to allow connectivity to the vehicle even when you’re not in it.  The app notifies owners of the charging status of their Volt and they can remotely change the charging parameters.  They also have access to a website where they can see how much electric energy they consume compared to fossil fuel for every one of their drives.  Volt drivers are very passionate and they want to understand how their vehicles are performing.   They’re smarter customers when they have access to the data.

We average more than 18 million requests per month for our mobile apps -- myChevrolet, myBuick, and so forth – and we have three million active users globally [customers that use the app at least once per month to lock/unlock doors, start the engine, etc.].  

Do you use a mix of service providers to connect the cars?

AT&T is our partner for the 4G LTE vehicles; prior to that we had Verizon. 

What does the connection to the car typically look like in terms of bandwidth?

We use a common carrier, AT&T, so the limitations are really governed by the market conditions out there.  We’ll peak out at whatever 4G can run at, but in reality you don’t get those speeds.  You’re sharing it with other users so it really depends on network conditions.

Because we’ve been a leader in 4G technology, you can be certain we’ve got our eye on the next generation of products that are coming out. You don’t have to wait for 5G. Enhancements to 4G will give us 2x on the uplink and downlink speeds in terms of channelization, which starts increasing your speed overall.  In some automotive applications we care about the uplink more than we care about the downlink, but I would assume most people care about the downlink, which is from the tower back to your car.  How fast can you stream a movie to your car?  But we’re interested in the uplink performance metrics for some future stuff that’s coming.  We’re excited about that.

The 5G work is interesting.  I’m particularly interested in some of these fixed, ultrahigh frequency things they’re experimenting with.  They aren’t for moving vehicles, but you can send a lot of data in a short period of time with some of these wide bandwidth systems they’re talking about in 5G.

This is kind of a tangential question, but if you look at something like the navigation app Waze, the strength of the app is the community sharing information.  Are you folks looking to leverage that collective connected experience?

Waze is a great example of crowd sourcing and how you can take advantage of it.  We have ideas, but none that are mature enough to mention yet, but there is a lot of opportunity. It’s more a matter of prioritization than anything else.

A few years ago I heard you talk about a future role for augmented reality.  Has progress been made on that front?

A few years ago at a conference the idea came up of eliminating the need for street signs, using augmented reality to control what we see when we’re driving, but we’re buried right now with what we’re trying to do with connectivity so I haven’t really thought more about it.  I think we’re going to start to see products in the near future that go beyond the goggles companies are selling, and eventually might see more automotive related applications.

Anything I didn’t think to ask you that is important to get across?

I’ll go back to the flywheel reference. I’ve been on this ride for 20 years and it continues to build momentum in terms of what we’re doing to harness the power of the connected car. It’s not just about putting connectivity in the car; it’s about connectivity and the right extraction capabilities, and then having the ability on the back end to do something with it.  You have to do all three parts. 

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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