Why Your Car Is Now A Giant Smartphone On Wheels

A GM-curated app store? Hackathons? Mary Chan, of GM’s “Global Connected Consumer” unit, on how the auto industry speaks Valley.


There was a time when the automotive industry was the pride of America, when consumers eagerly awaited each new model, when Wall Street happily buzzed about each upcoming earnings report. Today, the excitement we once reserved for the car has been transferred to a smaller but increasingly sexy object: the smartphone.


It’s Mary Chan’s task to help bring pizzazz back to cars. As president of a new GM division called “Global Connected Consumer,” Chan and her team aim to optimize the relationship between the technology that we navigate through space, and the technology that we navigate through cyberspace. GM was a pioneer in “connected vehicles” when it debuted OnStar 16 years ago. But 2013 could be a banner year for GM’s efforts in this space, as it attempts to marry OnStar with its various infotainment brands (Cadillac’s Cue, Chevy’s MyLink, and Buick’s and GMC’s IntelliLink).

Fast Company caught up with Chan to learn more about how she intends to bring some of the allure of Silicon Valley to an industry that traditionally moves slower, despite boasts about going from 0 to 60.

FAST COMPANY: You came to GM from Dell, and before that you had a decades-long career in wireless technologies. Now you’re an auto executive?

Mary Chan

MARY CHAN: GM formed this business unit called Global Connected Consumer in the middle of last year. GM wanted to integrate the infotainment unit in vehicles with the digital device users bring in, to marry the head unit with the smartphones, tablets, and devices users bring into the vehicle. Our vision is to bring your digital life into the vehicle, and also to bring your vehicle experience into your digital life.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

One challenge has been taking the automotive industry, where the product development cycle is on a four-year interval, to the consumer electronics industry, where the innovation cycle is between 18 months or less to 24 months or less–and really making sure these two things come together. The second challenge is that when you buy a car, the vehicle feature functionality is really locked in at the time you purchase the car, whereas in the PC world, the product gets smarter and better, and there’s a lot of flexibility through software. That’s where we need to bring that next phase of innovation in the automotive industry.


How do you do that?

We recently made a global commitment to bring 4G LTE broadband connectivity in its vehicles, across all brands. We selected AT&T as a partner for the U.S. and Canada. We’re also developing an application ecosystem for automotives. This allows us to open up the developer ecosystem. We’re building a GM-curated app store. At CES we had a hackathon with close to 500 developers, and you just saw the energy in the room. There was a lot of creativity.

How do you spur your staff to think creatively about the possibilities in a car?

We think of the vehicle as a connected device. We think of it as a smartphone on wheels. It’s a smartphone with a large battery that has a great integrated antenna, performance-intensive data, and multiple passengers that can have a very rich user experience inside of vehicles. We can pull data out of the vehicle. We can deliver diagnostic capability in real time. We can tell the customer if your battery lifespan is degrading, or we can predict when your fuel will run out, or in an electric vehicle we can tell you where’s the nearest charging station. I think there are still services we can’t even imagine today.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal