General Motor’s Executive Director, Connectivity and Infotainment, Phil Abram, shared an in depth look into GM’s success evolving vehicles into platforms for innovation in this conversation. Learn how Phil looks at the customer needs pre-journey, journey, and post-journey in order to develop the most useful technologies. Listen to the podcast:


Marni Edelhart: Hi this is Marni Edelhart, Director of Content and Experience for the Pivot Conference. I am here with Phil Abram, Executive Director, Connectivity and Infotainment for General Motors. At General Motors, Phil is responsible for setting and implementing global infotainment strategies that Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Opel, Vauxhall and Holden. Abram joined GM in January 2012 after serving as President and Chief Operating Officer for Sonos Inc, a wireless music system for home. At Sonos Abram headed the product management, worldwide sales and marketing, inventory, logistics and sales operations.

From 1996 to 2007, Abram held a number of positions in business development, product management and engineering. From 2005 to 2007, he was vice president and senior general manager, marketing for Sony Electronics, responsible for Sony’s television business in the US. Prior to that, he held a number of positions at Sharp Electronics and Eastman Kodak. Abram holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Gannon University and an MBA in finance from the University of Rochester. Abram has 12 patents to his credit, everything from digital imaging to internet services. Good morning Phil.

Phil Abram: Good morning, Marni. How are you today?

Marni Edelhart: I am doing very well, thanks. How are you doing?

Phil Abram: I am hanging in there.

Marni Edelhart: Well thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I’m very excited to learn more about your role at General Motors. So your title is Chief Infotainment Officer, and that’s pretty unique. How did GM develop this role and what are you responsible for as Chief Infotainment Officer?

Phil Abram: Yeah it’s funny, just this weekend somebody saw that on LinkedIn and sent me an email saying “hey I looked around and you are the only one of those, what is that?” And so what the company was realizing when we came together in 2012 is that what’s going on inside of the vehicle, inside of the car as it relates to how people interact with it is undergoing a radical change. Our CEO Mary Barra says the car is going to go through more change in the next five years than it has in the past fifty. And a lot of that is born from the convergence of telecommunications and digital platforms being able to be inside the car and connecting the car with the world outside of it. And so General Motors said hey we need to bring in some external thinking about this, people who have had experience in this area.

And so that’s when I joined the company in 2012, and the notion is that going through this transition from it being a car radio to something that engages with our customers both when they’re inside the car and when they’re outside of the car is going to require some new thinking, or at least new to the automotive industry. And so that’s why they created the position and that’s why I’ve joined. And over the past three and a half years we’ve built a team here with people from gaming experience, telecom experience, consumer goods, you know footwear and a bunch of other experiences to really help General Motors and our brands make the transition that we’re going through which is basically an analog to digital transition.

Marni Edelhart: Did you say footwear?

Phil Abram: Yeah, we have somebody who used to work at Nike. I mean he’s working at our customer insights area, right. And so we do a lot of you know insights to really understand how people use their cars and what are their unspoken needs in that regard, so we can then go and use all this great technology to solve them. And so people that have experience in a lot of consumer goods have great ways of thinking about and looking at and engaging with customers to understand them. And so we’ve people in that group from Apple and Nike. We have one of our guys that was on a Cadillac brand. And so putting the team together with a diverse set of skills has really paid off for us. And they’ve done some tremendous work for us.

Marni Edelhart: That makes much more sense. So these days consumers are both in their physical space and in their digital ecosystem, where do you see the greatest opportunities for cars to become increasingly integrated into that digital ecosystem?

Phil Abram: You know and we talk a lot about that and it kind of leverages on what we’re just talking about in terms of the type of people that we’re bringing in here to help us understand the customer. Well one of the things we really understand about the customer and its sounds obvious when we say it, but is that people want their vehicle and actually all parts of their lives to work together for them. You know I call it the Internet of Me, right I don’t believe in the term Internet of Things. I think that’s too much of the industry talking to itself. Customers care about the Internet of Me, my stuff works with my stuff. And it all kind of hangs together. And the car is one of the last to that party frankly.

And so what customers want is that their digital lives and how they live that through their smart devices and the cloud based services are with them in the car. And then the relevant experiences in the car, and the car is a highly contextualized environment. You don’t get in your car just to sit there. You’re usually going somewhere, doing something. It’s very active. It’s very much a decided event, right that you’re going to go do something. And so you have to find the right point of intersection so that it enables that goal because you are always about the driving experience. And the other thing is to make sure that the car when you’re not in it is part of your life as well. That’s why we have things like a remote link application that allows me to find my car. The car will tell you where it is.

You don’t have to drop the pin to figure it out. It’ll tell you where it is because it’s connected and can tell you and it’s got GPS. Or that you can remote start it on a cold winter morning or on a hot summer day. So when you get there your car is ready for you. And that’s really all of what it’s about, making your car more comfortable and more connected to you.

Marni Edelhart: I like that, the Internet of Me. We spend so much time in them and they have got to be connected to everything. So it makes a lot of sense.

Phil Abram: And it’s got, and it can’t be gratuitous connectivity. There’s you know, there’s so many things out there that like well yeah it’s connected but why bother? There’s not an unmet need there. Where we really focus in going back to the customer insights is where is stuff we can do because it’s connected that allows people to have a better experience or do things they couldn’t do before. And people love it when you do it for them, right and they gravitate towards that. And what was why do I need it to how do I, how can I live without it very quickly. And I’ll give you some quick stats.

We have an application we call RemoteLink. And from that application, you can do things like start your car, honk the horns, lock and unlock the doors and stuff like that, find the car. In 2013, we did 23 million remote interactions. In 2014, we did 43 million remote interactions. In the first six months of this year, we’ve already done 50 million remote interactions through RemoteLink. Because people are getting more and more comfortable, more and more aware that this is available. And then once they do, their usage of it goes up. So that’s a great example of where people are finding that connection to the car and bringing it into their digital lives.

Marni Edelhart: So you mentioned at the beginning of that stamtement that it’s important not to be gratuitously over connected in ways that aren’t valuable. So where do you see the risks of you know this is something that sounds cool, but isn’t actually useful to the customer? And where do you see the most exciting innovations that could be coming to cars?

Phil Abram: Well and I’ll expand it beyond connectivity because we’ve got so much more and I’ll give you a perfect example. I had a supplier of ours in here and about a month and a half ago now. And they outfitted a demo car with all these capabilities and they go hey Phil, push the talk button on the steering wheel and tell it to roll down the car windows, so I went and rolled down the windows. So I pushed the button, wait a second and then it comes back and it gives a beep and I say roll down the windows. And then the windows start to roll down, and the guy was smiling and kind of like hey isn’t that cool. And I was like well I just reached over and touched the button on the door and the windows rolled down. And I was like, that was, yeah I am impressed by the technology because I understand it and what you had to go through to do that.

But why bother? Because the ability to roll down my windows is an absolute customer need, but it was fully met by the fact that I can touch a button. I don’t even have to hold the button down. I touched the button and the windows rolled down. That’s gratuitous technology, the example is the voice-controlled windows. You don’t need it. It’s already met. Now then being able to unlock my car with my smartphone when I’m not there just because I left something in it and my wife is trying to get it out of the back. And she doesn’t have a set of keys for whatever reason, that’s valuable. That’s an unmet need that technology solves very well. So those are some examples of where we’re looking to find those areas where it creates new value and combining things together.

And another example is making you a better driver. So because it’s connected with your consent we’re able to pull information about how you’re driving, how you are hard braking and where you’re you know, how you’re speeding up or slowing down if you will, things of that nature. And we can give you back a report to say, hey here’s how you can become a better driver or if you’re a good driver how you compare to other people. Now you could then as a customer can take that and send it to an insurance company. And that insurance company may give you a discount for that because they now have more information about your driving behaviors and they know if you’re a higher or lower risk. So this is once again putting the customer in control of that information.

They sign up for the service. We call it Smart Driver. They decide if they want to share it with an insurance company after seeing the results. And so there’s one where I can become a better driver and I might be able to lower my insurance costs because I have a connected vehicle. And that’s a good thing for the customer and it’s something where they’re empowered by the technology to do things they couldn’t do before.

Marni Edelhart: It does make a lot of sense. And it seems like you have to really think about full customer experience, not just what’s happening while you’re driving the car. Like the example of the wife having to get in or something.

Phil Abram: Yeah and we talk about pre-journey, journey and post journey, right. So it’s you know the thing that’s a big change for how General Motors and our brands think about it is the experience that people have with their car no longer ends with the paint. It used to be from the paint in is how we defined our experience with our customers. Now it’s much broader than that, much deeper than that. And we have far more interactions with our customers than we’ve ever had before. Because if you bought a car you know ten years ago only if you had a ticket to the dealer for warranty, would you ever interact with the car company again, because there was no need or benefit to do so. Well now we’ve really advanced that and evolved that to where there’s lots of reasons for you to interact with us. And the more we interact with our customers, the better we get, the better we’re able to serve them, the happier they are as long as we’re meeting their needs.

Marni Edelhart: So thinking beyond cars because you have so much experience in all different places in technology, where do you see another exciting platform for innovation that has yet to be tapped?

Phil Abram: Well let’s see. I think the one area that is a possibility here and I think that this one, once again you’ve to got to watch, you’ve to keep the gratuitous filter up high is clothing. And where you know, what sensors and sensor fusion in clothing, where can that, then taking and make the use of that garment or the environment. I mean when I’m in that garment, more meaningful and it provide me more information and capabilities with that. And I’m not talking about wearables because that’s actually and if you look at many industries, technology often starts out as an adjacent feature. And I worked at Eastman Kodak. In digital photography the word digital was a sidebar to what we called photography, but it was really silver halide analog photography.

And it was a sidebar, but now when people talk about photography, they don’t talk about digital photography. But all the photography they talk about is digital, and it’s an example of where the new thing took over the old thing if you will. And it was the old world was totally subsumed in it and I think that’s like how wearables are today. It’s a dedicated device that does just that kind of and it’s a special thing. I think over some short period of time that it won’t be a special separate thing. It is just going to be a feature of everything you are wearing. And when that happens then the amount of information you have and then the applications that you can derive from that is going to be really interesting.

Marni Edelhart: Sorry, I was just processing everything you said. I think that the idea of having smart clothing that gives you just the right amount of information is such a delicate balance. I’m excited to see where it goes as well.

Phil Abram: Well and that’s and another thing is that if you get the information and you combine it with other information that’s really where it gets exciting. And you can see that with cars too, and what the analog to digital transition as a number of industries have done is one plus one equals three or four here. It’s not just replicating what we’ve done in the analog world. It’s because you can mix information from various sources and do it easily and then provide feedback that really, really gets exciting in terms of what you can do and see.

Marni Edelhart: Thinking of all of the possibilities, rapid innovation demands a level of corporate agility that is sometimes easier to smaller tech startups than a large scale legacy organization like General Motors that’s been around for years. How can GM be agile enough to keep up with the pace of new opportunities?

Phil Abram: I think the key is really driving towards platforms and creating platforms, not dedicated systems and solutions. And you talk about innovation being the purview of startups. Well in some cases they are, but people still think Apple’s pretty innovative and they’re about as big as it gets, right. So it’s not about size. It’s about mentality. It’s about focus. It’s about having the right principles in place. Amazon’s another very large corporation that continues to innovate greatly because they made a commitment to making services and platforms that are extensible and scalable. We’re doing the same thing. The OnStar 4G LTE system that we launched last year is a platform. We can innovate on that platform and then deliver new capabilities to our customers, both new customers and ones that just purchased their cars last year.

And that Smart Driver example from earlier on as we roll that out, that’s available to people that bought a car a year ago as well as somebody buying it tomorrow. Because we’ve put a platform in place and we’re doing the same thing with what we’re putting inside of the vehicle in terms of infotainment system, where then you can deliver new capabilities over time. And that’s really the key to staying relevant and current and innovating quickly and being able to deploy those innovations quickly. A good example is and one of the things that a startup can’t do that the company like General Motors can is earlier this year we announced that we’re going to support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in our vehicles. We’re going to do that on 33 different models which is going to be millions of vehicles. And well you know in a couple months time, no startup can get that volume that quickly or to scale that quickly.

Frankly not many other OEMs and if you look at the rest of the OEMs out there they’ve announced three, four models at most maybe five from anyone OEM. Because they didn’t have platforms in place. At GM the opportunity is when you can marry the notion of platforms with the incredible scale that we have, it gets really exciting. And we delivered over a million 4G LTE vehicles than the rest of the industry, we sold more in three days than the rest of the industry has in the first half of the year. That’s one of the things that excites me about being here is that the impact you can have and when you get it right, man you can get it right in a big way.

Marni Edelhart: Sounds like a pretty exciting three days.

Phil Abram: It’s just another three days for us, man. Every three days we’re pumping out as many cars with 4G LTE as the rest of the industry isn’t. Because we’ve made commitments to these platforms, and we understand the business model that allows us to make these investments for ourselves and our customers.

Marni Edelhart: Well speaking of platforms we’re very excited to have you coming to Pivot on October 29th to speak about evolving vehicles into platforms for innovation. And I want to thank you for your time today. I’ve really appreciated learning from you, and your thorough answers. It has been incredibly interesting.

Phil Abram: Well thanks Marni and I look forward to seeing you when I’m there in October.