In the fast-moving digital-tech world, a five-year-old brand is a codger. And a 21-year-old platform might as well be a centenarian.
But with a new alliance, IBM and General Motors are pairing some of the oldest brands in their tech stables—Watson and OnStar, respectively—in an attempt to leverage their connectivity and artificial intelligence successes to leapfrog the competition and control the computerized blitz occurring in the passenger compartments of automobiles.
GM hatched OnStar in 1995 as the first in-vehicle platform that gave the industry real-time interaction with people while they were driving or riding in a car. Since then, thanks to smartphones and GPS, OnStar has evolved into GM’s infotainment platform to compete with Ford’s Sync and the others that have proliferated.
Meanwhile, Watson famously bowed on the scene in 2011 when it beat two human champions on Jeopardy! Since then, IBM has used the AI brand in various ways, and now is relying on Watson for what Financial Times called an “outsized role” in the company’s growth prospects.
With the introduction of OnStar Go, which the companies called “the auto industry’s first cognitive mobility platform” in a press release, the alliance will give the 2 million or so drivers of GM’s 4G-LTE-connected vehicles enhanced “personalized” capabilities by the end of 2017. GM grabbed an early lead in making the fastest-speed cellular connections available in its vehicles. Millions more GM-branded app-enabled devices in the US will be included as well.
The goal is to “create experience that allow drivers and passengers to achieve greater levels of efficiency and safety,” the press release said, including “avoiding traffic when you’re low on fuel, then activating a fuel pump and paying from the dash; ordering a cup of coffee on the go; or getting news and in-vehicle entertainment tailored to your personality and location in real time.”
So, for instance, OnStar Go could tap Watson’s insights to “remind a working father to pick up diapers and formula at the pharmacy a few miles before his exit, so he won’t have to leave the house again once he gets home.” Or give “a traveling foodie dining recommendations from celebrity chefs when driving in a new city.”
Brand partners that will be favored in OnStar Go recommendations include ExxonMobil gas stations, Mastercard to help with on-the-go payments, and iHeartRadio “to curate personalized experiences that leverage on-air personalities and local content form radio stations across the US.”
If this sounds vaguely like what infotainment platforms already do, much of what OnStar Go is supposed to bring is a matter of magnitude and degree. It’s supposed to learn from users’ behavior to deliver the optimal customized experiences. The system will respond to voice commands by late 2017. GM also is trying to leverage data and features that relate specifically to the vehicle to which OnStar is hard-wired and that can’t be replicated by third-party connectivity providers such as Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto, such as tire pressure.
“By leveraging OnStar’s connectivity and combining it with the power of Watson, we’re looking to provide safer, simpler and better solutions to make our customers’ mobility experience more valuable and productive,” Phil Abram, executive director of GM Connected Products and Strategy, said in the announcement.
As GM CEO Mary Barra told The Wall Street Journal, the system will use “the power of Watson to understand [the] consumer and make sure what we’re putting in front of them is timely and relevant.” Added IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, in a remark to the newspaper, “This is the first one of its kind, a pervasive platform that has to do with making your life more enjoyable, safe and convenient in your car.”