Chevy adopts a bring-your-own-maps approach to navigation

Chevrolet(s gm) is making a radical departure from its approach to turn-by-turn navigation services. After using parent company’s General Motors’(s GM) OnStar service since its inception, Chevy is offering a competing alternative in its Sonic and Spark automobile lines. Called BringGo, it’s an integrated smartphone-dashboard system – Chevy’s first attempt at a bring-your-own-maps nav service to any of its vehicles.

Don’t expect Chevy to open the floodgates – Google Maps Navigation(s goog) and Apple Maps(s aapl) aren’t suddenly going to pop up on your new Spark’s in-dash monitor. The EnGIS-designed service was developed specifically for GM and it comes with a one-time fee of $50.

The app will be available for download in the iTunes and Google Play stores in the fourth quarter, and the in-dash software will come installed in all new Spark and Sonic models with Chevy’s MyLink connected car system. Customers who have already bought new 2013 Sparks and Sonics can get the in-dash app through an update via MyLink’s USB port, though Chevy hasn’t revealed yet whether you can perform the upgrade yourself or have it done by the dealer.

Global Program Manager for Infotainment Sarah LeBlanc said that Chevy realized after discussions with customers that the younger generation of car buyers wanted in-dash nav services but they didn’t want OnStar.

Chevy has been trying to revamp its image, targeting the millennial generation with affordable, trendier cars (if you don’t believe me, check out the advertising). The Spark, which Chevy was showing off to auto journalists Chicago this week, is the perfect example: the subcompact five-door ranges from $12,000 to $16,000 and comes in a color palette unknown to nature.

“The biggest percentage of people who would buy this car are young urbanites, many of whom have just graduated from college, just got their first jobs and are buying their first cars,” LeBlanc said. There’s one other thing these millennials all have in common, she said: They invariably own smartphones.

The Spark is the first car GM is selling that doesn’t have a CD player option in all but its most basic model. The expectation is that anyone who buys this car has already eschewed physical media in favor of digital. As you might expect, that same millennial set isn’t so hot on the idea of paying more than $1,000 for an embedded nav system or a $29 per month OnStar subscription fee when they’re accustomed to getting turn-by-turn directions on their smartphones for free, LeBlanc said.

It ain’t OnStar, but one day it could be

Chevy isn’t giving away BringGo for free, but it is adding value to traditional smartphone navigation with BringGo to justify its $50 expense. Unlike other mapping services, BringGo downloads full maps to the smartphone (the full version takes up 2 GB of memory), so the app isn’t constantly reaching out over the network to find out what’s around the next corner. This has the advantage of not sucking down drivers’ data plans, but it also means that maps don’t suddenly stop working if the data connection is weak.

The app connects to MyLink through Bluetooth or USB, and uses the dash’s built-in 7-inch letterbox monitor to render 3D color maps complete with traffic data. It uses the phone’s GPS and other sensors, but you can access all of BringGo’s controls through the car’s touchscreen interface. There’s even an option to use Google Local Search to find businesses, events and points of interest.

It certainly doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of OnStar. There are no voice prompts for instance, so you have to keep a close eye on screen. And if the assisted-GPS on our device loses one too many satellites, the nav system may temporarily lose your exact location. But those problems are minor compared to those of following a route on a three-inch screen lying in your lap.

But even if BringGo has limitations, they could quickly disappear. If EnGIS and Chevy decide to add more features – for instance, voice prompts and voice commands – they can do so simply through an app store update. Customer may hold onto their cars for five years, but they’ll likely own several different smartphones in the same period. As their devices and EnGIS’s software becomes more powerful, so do their cars’ nav systems.

Consumer friendly, yes, but GM friendly?

Chevy is definitely making a bold move. Maybe those 20-somethings would never fork over the money for OnStar, but they’re not the only age group that own smartphones. When will the buyers of pricier Chevys – not to mention Buicks, GMCs and even Cadillacs – start wondering when they’ll get BringGo as well?

The more GM opens its cars up to developers, the more it risks losing control of its platforms and cannibalizing services it provides through OnStar. So far GM has been cautious. Apart from the still-unreleased BringGo, MyLink has just two apps: Pandora(s p) and Stitcher.

This is a problem GM and its competitors are going to have to wrestle with in the next few years as they delve further into their connected car strategies. It’s also a topic we’re going to explore in more detail at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in two weeks. Ford Motor Company (s f) Chief Technologist for Connected Car Solutions; John Ellis, GM of Harman’s Aha infotainment platform.  Robert Acker, and Honda(hmc) R&D Americas Connected Technology Engineer David Kirsch will all be in San Francisco Sept. 20-21 to discuss how automakers have become the latest smart device designers and how that trend will reshape their industry.

Cadillac CUE

GM is most definitely giving signals that connectivity will be key to its strategy moving forward. It now has connected infotainment systems for all of its major brands. Cadillac’s CUE targets the high end of the market with a rich interface and very powerful embedded hardware (more on CUE later this month). But GM is also showing it’s not going to cheap out when it comes to low-end models.

MyLink may not have haptic feedback, built-in Nuance(s nuan) voice recognition or a digital heads-up display. But its latest iteration in the Spark and Sonic – built by LG and powered by Microsoft(s msft) — is certainly no lightweight, especially when you consider that many of the cars it’s going into will cost less than $15,000. It’s probably no coincidence that GM has also targeted the Spark to receive its first all-electric vehicle treatment.

GM seems to have made a key calculation: While wealthier car buyers can most afford connected car technologies, it’s the younger, more budget-minded buyers that will actually use the technology most.