Chet Huber remembers back in 1995, when his entire staff would meet in a single office and some of them would be sitting on cardboard boxes. He recalls that on his office wall there was a target with the numeral “50” in the center. Today, Huber’s organization, OnStar Corp. (www.onstar.com; Detroit), a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, has four million subscribers. The 50 was the number of people that they were hoping to sign up per day. Early on, they weren’t always making that number. Huber admits that it took a lot of commitment on behalf of GM executives back in the early going of the business, as they were trying to do something that had never been done before—and arguably, something that no other company in the world is doing to the degree that OnStar is. There are now some 500 employees. The cardboard boxes have given way to the OnStar Command Center in GM Headquarters that looks like something operated by NASA.
On an average month in the third quarter of 2005, OnStar was involved in:
HUBER’S JOURNEY. They’ve come a long way in 10 years. In some regards, Huber has gone even further. In 1972, the co-op engineering student (General Motors Institute; now Kettering University) joined the then-GM Electro-Motive Div. (GM sold the company to two equity groups in 2005). He recalls that in 1994 his boss asked him to lunch. He wondered whether he’d done something wrong because that wasn’t the norm. His boss explained to him that the U.S. Department of Defense was offering an opportunity for a handful of civilians to attend the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and that GM wanted him to do it. He was the first Industrial Fellow to attend the school. He obtained a Master of Science Degree in National Resource Strategy in June 1995 (he’d previously received an MBA from Harvard.) Huber says that this was an unusual turn of events for a mechanical engineer who had been selling railroad engines. Upon his return from those studies, he was assigned to what became OnStar and has been its first and only president since June 1995.
DRIVING TECHNOLOGY. A premise that Huber and his colleagues started with was that OnStar technology development had to be more akin to the consumer electronics industry than the traditional auto industry. In other words, the long lead times between development and deployment had to be overcome lest the product/service offering they were presenting to the public was behind the times. “A fundamental proof-point for us was whether we could move the technology fast enough.” So they began working with electronics companies including Motorola (www.motorola.com; Schaumburg, IL), which has been supplying OnStar since 1996. In October 2005, it was announced that Motorola would be supplying GM with its next-generation Telematics Control Unit (TCU); the company’s present generation is being used in the system at present. The TCU incorporates wireless and global positioning system (GPS) technology to connect the vehicle to an OnStar call center. The two firms had to work through technology developments during the past few years, such as making a transition from analog to digital technology.
“We’re now on Gen 6 hardware,” Huber says. “Six generations in nine years. It’s almost the pace of consumer electronics. The cost of the hardware has gone down and the reliability and the capability have gone up.” He references a couple of consequences of the improvements. The Gen 6 system has voice recognition software, ViaVoice from IBM (www.ibm.com; Armonk, NY), that is able to recognize a continuously spoken telephone number. Huber says that in early versions of the product, not only did the speaker---have---to---say---each---number---with---a---pause---between---it---and---the---next, but it was so sensitive to accents that if the speaker wasn’t from the Midwest, the system had a difficult time discerning what was said. That’s just one of the improvements.
General Motors announced in early ’05 that OnStar would be offered as a standard feature in all of GM retail vehicles sold in the U.S. and Canada by the end of ’07. “If we had the cost base on Gen 2 technology,” Huber says, “the standardization across all the GM vehicles wouldn’t work.” The economics wouldn’t work.
While Huber says they’d hoped they would have been able to use hardware and software largely off the shelf, so far they’ve applied for some 300 patents. He remarks, perhaps only half-joking, “I would have been happy if we’d filed for zero patents. That would have meant that we didn’t have to invent anything.”
BEYOND THE AIRBAG CALL. One of the aspects of the system he thinks is particularly important is what’s called “Advanced Automatic Crash Notification” (AACN). Huber says that in discussions with organizations ranging from the Centers for Disease Control (yes, it does work in the area of motor vehicle accidents) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the Mayo Clinic, it became evident that it would be helpful if emergency responders would be able to get more information from the OnStar advisors than just that there was an airbag deployment and whatever other information was made available by a vehicle occupant (i.e., an airbag deployment initiates the sending of a signal to an OnStar center; an OnStar advisor then calls the vehicle; if there is no response or if there is and the person responding says there’s an emergency, then local emergency responders are contacted). With AACN, if there is a collision, information on forces and directions of the impact is gathered by an array of sensors on the vehicle; this information also indicates whether there have been multiple impacts and whether the vehicle has rolled. This information can be helpful in describing to the responders what they’ll be dealing with when they arrive at the accident scene.
Another recently introduced capability is for an OnStar equipped vehicle to send an email to its owner. The first installed on model year ’04 vehicles, can do this. The Oil Life System monitors engine operating conditions so as to make a determination of when the oil needs to be replaced. This monitored information and more are used by the OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics system. The system checks out the engine/transmission, airbag, ABS, and the OnStar system itself. It runs a check of approximately 1,600 diagnostic codes. Then, on a monthly basis, it sends an email to a customer-specified address. This email includes information on whether those systems need service, as well as about the remaining oil life, the odometer reading and whether service is necessary at that point, any recall or service action campaigns related to the vehicle, and more. Between when the service was announced in mid-September 2005 to mid-December 2005, 445,000 OnStar customers subscribed to it.
And Huber was once hoping to sign up 50 people per day.