Hands on with GM’s new 4G-powered connected car system

In the next six months, General Motors’(s gm) first 4G cars will start rolling off dealer lots, but on Tuesday GM treated me to a sneak peak at what its newly revamped MyLink infotainment system and OnStar connectivity platform will look like.
First off, GM has come a long way from the point where its connected cars only sported one third-party application, Pandora(s p). Starting with model year 2015 Chevys and then moving to Cadillacs and GMCs, the automaker is completely overhauling its approach to the connected car. Instead of depending on the driver’s smartphone to both provide the data link and run apps, it’s moving everything into the dash, inviting developers to design apps within an HTML5 framework and connect to AT&T’s LTE network through embedded radios.
2015 Corvette and Impala with 4G

A budding app library

The most obvious result of that effort is an app store built directly into the dash, and it’s beginning to get populated with apps. I counted a dozen during a GM press event in Chicago Wednesday, most of them streaming services like NPR, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Kaliki and Slacker Radio, though there were a few location-based services and general information apps such as Glympse, Weather.com, Eventseeker and Cityseeker.
GM is currently working with a select group of developers to gradually bring new apps to the platform, said Chief Infotainment Officer Phil Abram. He wouldn’t say whether that means this catalog of 12 apps will be only services AppShop launches with this summer, but I didn’t get the impression GM is in any hurry.
Abram said AppShop won’t be a big app store like Google(s goog) Play — there will never be thousands of apps in its catalog. GM will screen new submissions for quality and to ensure they’re suitable for in-vehicle consumption (i.e. they don’t distract drivers from the road). While Abram has a point in that our connected cars may not need 10,000 apps, they will certainly need more than 12 if only to capture the broad variety of audio streaming services out there. Pandora and Slacker are great, but there are a lot of people who subscribe to Spotify, Rdio or Beats Music.

Chevy MyLink apps 2015 Impala

MyLink’s App menu on the 2015 Chevy Impala

I tested out the MyLink directly on a Chevy Impala and saw it in action on the new Corvette. The big center-console touchscreen shared by both vehicles was vivid and easy to navigate with large app icons, making them easy to find and mash with my chubby digits while keeping my eyes on the road.
There was a lot of noticeable lag in loading the apps, and some apps like Glympse and NPR wouldn’t open at all. GM officials explained that many of the apps were still in development. Some of the apps like Priceline.com’s hotel finder service were more demo mockups (I could look at as many Las Vegas hotels as I liked, but couldn’t get it to do a local search for available rooms in Chicago).
Waiting for NPR's app to load (it never does)

Waiting for NPR’s app to load (it never does)

But there were definitely apps on the platform that appeared fully formed and ready for launch. Weather.com was one. With a touch of button it not only showed you the five-day local weather forecast but also read it out loud through the car’s audio system.

Delving deep into the guts of the car

GM’s most impressive app, though, was the one it designed itself. Called Vehicle Health Monitor, the app does a complete diagnostic check of the car’s systems, pointing out possible issues on easy-to-read vehicle diagrams. And if it finds a problem it will even offer to book a maintenance appointment with your dealership, searching its appointment book for open time slots.
The Vehicle Health app is an example of GM moving outside the confines of the infotainment system and tapping into the control access networks of the car itself. Other automakers have built similar diagnostic applications, but the difference here is that GM is going to extend that access to developers through application programming interfaces. One day Pandora may be able to automatically select a music station based on how fast you’re driving or whether the windshield wipers are on.

2015 Chevy Corvette Interior

2015 Chevy Corvette Interior

Tapping vehicle telematics systems could wind up being one of GM’s most popular development features if usage of GM’s own OnStar Remote Link service is any indication. Abram said that in January automated digital interactions with OnStar nearly surpassed voice interactions with live OnStar advisors. Because of the cold wave sweeping the country, OnStar is processing about 20,000 remote engine starts an hour from its Remote Link smartphone app, so drivers can pre-warm their cars.
The final service I tested out was GM’s in-vehicle Wi-Fi connectivity. I had no problem linking my iPhone to the car after entering a password, and as it connected to AT&T’s LTE network, I was able to surf the web and stream video without a glitch. Even if you wind up sharing a data plan between your phone and your GM car, you might want to bypass your phone’s LTE radios and connect through in car Wi-Fi. Not only will you save your phone’s battery, but you’ll get a better connection via the car’s external high-gain antenna.
Wi-Fi hotspot in the Impala
Obviously GM’s new connected car platform is still in development so I don’t want to be too harsh a critic. What did work happened to work very well, so if GM and its developers iron out of the bugs, they will have an impressive and powerful infotainment system on their hands.
GM will definitely need to expand its app catalog significantly, however. GM is right to be cautious about what software it lets into the vehicle — in fact it’s required by law to do so — but if it doesn’t have the apps people are using on a daily basis, then MyLink isn’t very useful. That’s a problem that not only GM faces, but the entire auto industry.