Akerson: 4G has gee-whiz factor

Akerson: 4G has gee-whiz factor
DETROIT — General Motors CEO Dan Akerson was blown away by a recent test drive in a GM prototype. It wasn’t the torque or the ride or the handling. It was the high-speed wireless Internet coursing through the car’s cabin.
Akerson says the 4G wireless service GM will pipe into most models starting next year will offer the sort of seamless connectivity many consumers have come to expect everywhere — except in the car, where their experience often is hampered by sluggish smartphone connections and clunky touch screen interfaces.
The former telecom executive predicts GM’s deployment of 4G LTE, which is up to 10 times faster than the 3G cellular data connections available on many smartphones today, will put Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac on more shopping lists.
“It’s stunning what we are able to do when it rolls out,” Akerson told Automotive News last week. “There’s a raft of things you could do that are faster, more content-rich.”
For example, he says, GM will offer live video streaming to rear-seat screens. The vehicle will be a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, so grown-ups can have a zippy connection on their smartphones while kids swipe away at their tablets in the back seat. Navigation maps, traffic reports and programs such as Google Earth could be streamed live to the infotainment head unit.
Cool features aside, the biggest benefits will be greater reliability and faster speeds from an embedded Internet link rather than just a smartphone connection, says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive technology analyst with research firm Gartner Inc.
“People have broadband access at home, at work, on their phones. Only their cars are lagging behind,” Koslowski says. “This would lead to a much better customer experience. It’s really what consumers are expecting.”
GM will partner with ATandT to offer 4G LTE through its OnStar service on most 2015 models starting in mid-2014. Owners would be able to subscribe to the service through OnStar or add their car as an additional device on their ATandT data plan.
Koslowski says most automakers are working on embedded broadband, but he agrees with Akerson’s assessment that GM probably has a one- or two-year head start on nonluxury rivals. Audi is expected to launch 4G LTE service in the United States next year.
Akerson says connectivity has become a top-five purchase consideration for buyers in their teens through early 40s. He believes the 4G experience will be a key differentiator, especially as those young people who “are living with mom and dad because they can’t get a job” eventually become new-car shoppers.
“When they do come back — and they will — they’re going to want cars that are connected,” he said.
Akerson, who was president of MCI in the early 1990s and ran other telecom companies, has emphasized consumer technology as an image builder for GM’s brands. He recruited tech executives to spearhead the effort, including Mary Chan, who arrived in May 2012 to head GM’s infotainment and OnStar division after running mobility solutions at Dell Inc.
Chevrolet recently became the first automotive brand to integrate Apple’s Siri voice recognition system, in the Spark minicar and Sonic subcompact. Cadillac’s CUE infotainment touch screen was the first among major brand offerings to deploy smartphone-like swipe and pinch commands.
Akerson seems to delight in melding his telecom experience with GM’s connected-car push. He likens GM’s effort to when MCI was racing against other telecom companies in the early ’90s to thread fiber-optic cable across the nation.
“With 4G,” he said, “there’s stuff that’s going to happen here that the guy with the biggest pipe and the fastest jump is going to take advantage of.”
Still, the 4G connection alone won’t make for a great experience. Analysts say GM has the same challenges facing all other automakers: to develop intuitive interfaces and consumer apps that safely give users features they want. Some critics have panned the Cadillac CUE system for its sluggish response and lack of knobs, for example.
For inspiration about the power of easy-to-use consumer gadgets, Akerson looks to his 8-year-old grandson, who, like many other kids, has mastered his parents’ iPad.
“These kids are going to expect cars to do certain things,” Akerson said. “I don’t want Tesla to define what innovation is.”

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