E-cars Take to the Streets

The Automobile will no longer be an isolation booth where business users are shut off from access to information. Over the next 18 months, automakers including General Motors (GM) and Ford are working on technologies that will give drivers access to information on their corporate network and the Internet, opening up the potential for a host of new mobile applications.

"There is no question that our strategy and philosophy is to turn the car into a node on the network," said Karenann Terrell, director of E-vehicle Product Management at E-GM.

Rival Ford shares a similar vision of giving workers the ability to retrieve any office information from the car, said company officials.

The effects will be profound for every enterprise with an e-business strategy, particularly in service-based industries where ubiquitous access to information is a clear benefit.

"It's brilliant technology. If I can pop the [GM] OnStar, get an update, and look smart when I walk into a client's office, it has great value," said James R. Stenger, principal at US-based NAS Financial Services.

E-GM will lead the charge with a dramatic expansion of the OnStar technology, including a voice-activated portal called MyOnStar Virtual Advisor. The GM Virtual Advisor will be introduced in July and integrated into one million GM cars this year. It will give users of midsize, economy, and luxury GM cars and trucks voice access to e-mail, plus information retrieval from the Web.

GM next month at the New York Auto Show will unveil future OnStar technology, to be available within an 18-month time frame, that will allow users to create personal and business profiles stored on a service called My OnStar Home Page Portal. The portal will allow users to access to the same information via any desktop or mobile device. The company will also leverage its recent $US15 million equity position with General Magic - considered one of the originators of the concept of the hands-free universal messaging platform -- to create a single platform for accessing all types of messages.

GM is looking to add to OnStar corporate information retrieval features garnered from its experiences working with trading partners in its electronic exchange, Terrell said.

To make the technology work, automakers are working closely with two of the biggest players in the computer industry, IBM and Microsoft.

"The discussions between IBM and all the top automakers are at all levels of management," said Raj Desai, director of Worldwide Automotive Solutions, in the industrial sector at IBM.

The planned architecture will give enterprise-level companies the capability of connecting wirelessly to a server and to applications anywhere in the world. Applications running on the network and accessed via a small embedded client built into the car will give users access to real-time information.

"We believe that [thin-client] model is important," Desai said. "The distributed model allows you to go from low-end to high-end vehicles and keep the apps and interfaces the same."

The thin-client model also allows automakers to keep production costs below $300, and avoid a so-called life-cycle mismatch.

"A vehicle can be used for 10 years, but technology changes every two years or less," Desai said.

But it is not only drivers that will reap the benefits of the new technology. The automakers hope to use it as well. One goal is to continue the customer relationship after the car sale -- something that up until now has had little success -- but the technology will also give the car manufacturers access to previously unavailable information.

IBM, for example, will offer solutions running on any real-time OS, such as QNX from QSSL, that requires as little as 8MB to 16MB in the car. But that will be enough for automakers to be able to monitor car components for warranty failure data, customer choices, and usage patterns.

"That information becomes available for everybody in the value chain. It gives information that previously never flowed back and will cut out the waste and wrong decision that leads to making bad cars," Desai said.

Although the carmakers' plans have huge potential benefits, certain obstacles remain, such as managing millions of cars rather than thousands of desktops. IBM will address this challenge in a major announcement next week, as it launches its Services Delivery Platform. The Platform will include middleware for managing software updates and interrogating and fixing problems on the client. It will also offer MQ and DB2 services, as well as WebSphere applications and tools.

"If you are an insurance company and are starting a service for your claims adjusters, the Services Delivery Platform software stack will know how to integrate it with your existing e-business infrastructure, transcode it, and deliver content to these in-car devices," Desai said.

Microsoft is also working closely with the auto industry to adapt to the carmakers' requirements.

"The automakers want a new version of the OS every fall so that they have a test bed over the winter and can offer it in their cars for the next model year," said Keith Weintraub, product manager for Windows CE for Automotive.

He added that he believes that in the near future, in-car communications will become essential.

"Anyone living a Web lifestyle can't afford to be shut off," he said. "If you are in business you need to be in synch."

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