GM makes a U-turn on the connected car highway, leaning heavily on Google, Apple for apps

Seven months ago, I sat in in Chevy Corvette pushing buttons on what was supposed to be General Motors’ next generation infotainment system. The new MyLink was intended to bring a bevy of new entertainment, information and lifestyle apps into the Chevy dashboard, all accessible from GM’s own app store. And an LTE radio embedded in the Corvette’s roof was intended to be the primary source of connectivity for all content brought into the vehicle.

AppShop never made it into the Corvette nor any of GM’s new 4G cars released this summer. Nor did promised apps like [company]NPR[/company], [company]Slacker Radio[/company], [company]Kaliki[/company], [company]Glympse[/company] or [company][/company] (the exception is [company]Pandora[/company]) roll off the lot along with new GM models.

What happened? [company]GM[/company] has abandoned its strategy of making its embedded infotainment systems the central development platform and OS for most apps in the car.

Chevy's new MyLink system in the Impala as seen in a February demo. This system never made it to market (photo: Kevin Fitchard)

Chevy’s new MyLink system in the Impala as seen in a February demo. This system never made it to market (photo: Kevin Fitchard)

I sat down Mary Chan, GM President of the Global Connected Consumer, at CTIA Wireless this week where she candidly acknowledged that GM’s connected car strategy will be dramatically different. Instead of trying to bring every app and service to market itself, GM is leaning heavily on its new partners [company]Apple[/company] and [company]Google[/company] to bring core infotainment apps to the dash and relying on the smartphone to supply the connectivity for those apps.

What Apple and Google can and can’t do in the car

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both user-interface layers that run on top of automakers’ own infotainment operating systems, essentially projecting a driver-optimized version of popular apps from the smartphone onto the dashboard screen. So instead of downloading a separate version of Spotify or Google Maps for your car, you can use the same app in your phone, interacting with it using the car’s touchscreen controls or buttons.

We always knew GM was going to use Android Auto and CarPlay in some form to buff up the content in its Chevy MyLink, Cadillac Cue and Buick/GMC IntelliLink systems. But the strategy Chan describes goes much further. With some exceptions, GM is basically handing over development of any app that isn’t directly tied to the vehicle’s core driving capabilities over to Apple and Google.

Take audio streaming apps, for instance. There are hundreds of apps delivering music, talk radio, podcasts, audio books and any other conceivable type of audio content. To bring all of those apps to every car’s infotainment system would be a nightmare for both developers and automakers, requiring direct integration and optimization of each individual app into dozens of different operating systems.

Apple's CarPlay system (source: Apple)

Apple’s CarPlay system (source: Apple)

Those apps, however, are already in Google Play and the iTunes store, and since they require very little of the car’s hardware resources to function — basically the display and audio speakers — only a few development tweaks would be necessary to optimize them for potentially hundreds of vehicle makes and models using CarPlay or Android Auto. And since they would run on the phone and use its radios for internet connectivity, customers could use them without subscribing to a separate connected car data plan.

“Those types of applications are great applications to be brought into the car with the smartphone,” Chan said. “The types of apps we want to focus on are the ones that require a much deeper integration with the vehicle.”

Those apps are the services that need to delve into GM’s connected car APIs, accessing engine data, taking readings for the car’s growing bevy of sensors or tapping into its telematics systems. GM’s OnStar Remote Link is a perfect example: it tracks the health of the car, monitors fuel or battery levels and supports features like remote door unlock and engine start from a smartphone. CarPlay and Android Auto’s limited integration with the car means it can’t perform those complex tasks.

The OnStar Remote Link app showing a Chevy Volt's battery charge (source: GM)

The OnStar Remote Link app showing a Chevy Volt’s battery charge (source: GM)

GM’s development program isn’t going away, Chan said. But its focus has definitely narrowed. What we should expect to see is many more apps from GM and its partners focused on things like remote monitoring, road safety and car location. Some specialty entertainment apps might not be out of the question either.

For instance, Gracenote is working on music algorithms that could tie listening selections to the vehicle or driver’s mood, for instance playing more upbeat music when the car is cruising on a wide-open highway or more introspective music when its raining (as indicated by the car’s windshield wipers). Those types of apps will need to tap more deeply into GM’s APIs.

GM also needs to provide options for customers who don’t have Android or iOS phones, and its developer program will remain open to more general lifestyle apps for that reason. GM also said that the AppShop will eventually debut in GM cars to distribute those apps, though it gave no details on the timing.

A less ambitious but a better approach to the connected car

In my opinion, GM’s move is a very smart one. Its previous connected car approach put too much pressure on GM to build a big app ecosystem; something it or any automaker isn’t equipped to do. It also required drivers to buy often expensive data plans from a single carrier AT&T (GM also announced at CTIA that it would bring OnStar 4G connectivity to Europe under its Opel brand). [company]AT&T[/company] will still supply connectivity for OnStar systems and GM’s own homegrown apps, but drivers will no longer be required to sign up for a data plan to access services like streaming.

The new approach is actually similar to that of [company]Ford[/company], which has taken a smartphone-centric bring-your-own-connectivity approach since it first launched Sync AppLink. The difference is Ford still requires developers to work within its development framework, while GM is turning much of that work to Google and Apple (Ford also has signed up to use CarPlay and Android Auto in some limited fashion).

The 2015 Chevy Corvette (photo: Kevin Fitchard)

The 2015 Chevy Corvette (photo: Kevin Fitchard)

So what precipitated GM’s change of heart? Chan said it was timing.

Automakers have long development cycles and when GM was developing its infotainment strategy, CarPlay and Android Auto didn’t even exist as concepts. Both programs were only officially announced at Google’s perspective developer events this year, and it was around that time that GM decided to switch gears, Chan said.

The only drawback is that new GM car buyers will find their cars a lot less connected than originally promised. Pandora is available in the MyLink system and will connect to the Pandora app in your smartphone. GM has its OnStar navigation and assistance apps, XM radio and a hotspot router that will let you to distribute the car’s LTE connection to other devices via Wi-Fi.

But if you were hoping for a bevy of apps, you’ll have to wait until CarPlay and Android Auto are officially available in GM cars, and GM is remaining mum about when that will be. There’s a good possibility that the new MyLink and Cue systems in 2015 model cars will be able to get them with a software upgrade.

This post was update on Friday, Sept. 12, to clarify the headline and add more details about the future of the GM’s AppShop and developer programs. While much of GM’s car app development will shift to CarPlay and Android Auto, MyLink and GM’s other infotainment brands Cue and IntelliLink won’t disappear. They will remain the core operating systems and primary user interfaces in its vehicles.

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