GM’s Innovation Hunter Is A Fast Driver Looking To Speed Up Car Development

Did you know there’s an Easter egg to listen for when you start up a Chevy Volt? Frankie James, head of the Silicon Valley innovation lab at GM, reveals more about how American cars are evolving.


Some music conspirators say Beethoven slipped in an Easter egg into his Fifth Symphony. The first four notes–dun dun dun DUNNNN–aside from being one of the most recognizable openings in classical music, is also Morse code for the letter “v.” “V,” of course, is the Roman numeral for five, and ties in perfectly given the name of his magnum opus.


Written at the turn of the 19th century, Symphony No. 5 predates the invention of the electric telegraph by almost 40 years, and Morse code wasn’t widely used until the 1860s, so the theory is easily debunked. And yet, says Frankie James, the woman with the rock ‘n’ roll name who heads General Motors’ Advanced Technology Silicon Valley office, her team took inspiration from this story when composing musical cues for the eerily quiet Chevy Volt.

So drivers would know when their cars were on–and more importantly, when they were off, to avoid draining the battery–James brought on an intern from her alma mater Stanford, where she received her Ph.D. in computer science, to create the Volt’s opening and closing numbers. In the end, they came up with a simple idea: Turning on the car would trigger a subtle whoo sound that crescendos and builds; turning it off would have the opposite, ebbing effect.

Frankie James Image: Alice Truong

And, as an homage to one of classical music’s finest, they slipped in the Morse code for GM in the welcome music.

“We like that, obviously because it’s GM,” James told Fast Company. “[The intern] was also an amateur ham radio operator, and she told me that GM means ‘good morning.’ We thought it was really sweet that your car said good morning to you when you turned it on.”

At the car maker’s Palo Alto innovation lab, James oversees a small team–as small as two in October, though she’s hoping to grow its size–that actively scouts for interesting new technologies to bring to GM’s vehicles. Before joining General Motors in 2006, James had stints working at NASA as a researcher (“I can say I’ve had stuff in space, which is pretty cool”) and at SAP, where she worked as a program manager for human-computer interaction research.


It was James’s team that was responsible for the Cadillac Cue infotainment system’s HTML5 platform. With developers already building for iOS and Android, HTML5 was an appealing option for vehicle app development. “That’s not a bad option for third parties,” she said. “Here’s something that’s not just a GM proprietary platform, because it could have a larger footprint.”

In Silicon Valley, where development happens at breakneck speed, the automotive industry can seem like it’s moving at horse-and-buggy pace. Merely incorporating the opening and closing audio cues for the Volt took close to two years–and that was a fast-tracked project. Due to the drawn-out nature of developing cars, it’s impossible to work at the rate of software companies. “We know we’re building a car that more or less needs to be bulletproof compared with consumer devices,” James said. But she adds: “We’re certainly looking at ways to bring in technology at a later time [in the development cycle] or do things faster.”

Yet, there are instances when the stars line up. When James met with the team of the car-sharing service RelayRides, they had talked about how cumbersome it was to hand off the car keys, and showed off a prototype that triggered a mechanical system to unlock the driver’s door after scanning a barcode on the windshield. As they described this, James whipped out her phone and said, “Well, that’s interesting. My OnStar app can unlock my car,” demonstrating the functionality.

A matter of synergy, she put RelayRides in contact with the folks at GM-owned OnStar, as well as GM Ventures. Months later, OnStar and RelayRides announced a partnership, declaring OnStar cars to be RelayRides compatible. “There was no technology that needed to be developed,” James recalls. “That was a cool, fast win.”

Since James was a child, she’s revered the GM brand. Her family had always owned Cadillacs, a car that to her symbolizes making it in America. “If you look at the Cadillac compared with other luxury brands, it’s so quintessentially American, so individual, so out there, bold–not just a wallflower,” she boasts. Having owned a BMW before her GM days, she says European cars are much more muted, lacking that flair.

James’s company car Image: Alice Truong

Though James drives a Cadillac XTS 6 as a company car, her baby is Elliott, a black 2010 C6 Grand Sport Corvette–her first manual transmission. Her face lights up when she mentions Elliott, and she can’t help but whip out her iPad to show off like a proud parent.

While she focuses on next-gen car tech–in-vehicle infotainment systems, heads-up displays, autonomous cars, and the like–what really excites her is the technology under the hood. “The sports car bug is insane,” she said. “Once you start driving cars with a lot of power and do exactly what you tell them to, it’s like, oh my gosh, it’s so incredible.”

In fact, it irks her when people buy cars more for their frills, such as iPod connectivity, and not the driving experience itself. “It means to me you’re not enjoying one of the coolest experiences you get to have on a regular basis, taking this machine and making it go really fast and being in control of it.” Ever the car enthusiast, James belongs to a Corvette club and has also taken road-racing classes where she’s topped out at well over 100 miles per hour.

Her love of driving is why she couldn’t envision ever owning a self-driving car–even if that’s one of GM’s major focuses looking ahead. From a human-machine interaction standpoint, she points to expert Don Norman, whom she once heard speak as a graduate student at Stanford, about the new car culture autonomous vehicles will bring. Self-driving cars, he argued, will likely lead auto enthusiasts to drive in controlled environments, such as a track, much like what happened to horses after the rise of motor vehicles. “I think that’s pretty far off,” she says, “Or, I hope it’s pretty far off. I would hate to try to find the time to drive, as opposed to just being in my car as part of my day.”

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal