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Challenges travel with OnStar to China

'Automotive News' reports on OnStar's challenges in China.

3 min read

Automotive News

SHANGHAI -- Imagine a driver from Guangzhou has an accident. He calls OnStar, but the Mandarin-speaking OnStar staffer doesn't understand Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Guangzhou.

"You can't plan and design a system to cover 1,000 different dialects," says Jonathan Hyde, director of telematics for GM China Group. GM assumes that most car buyers will speak Mandarin, the dialect taught in China's schools.

Hundreds of local dialects are just one challenge General Motors faces as it prepares to launch OnStar in China. But the chance to be the first to offer such services in the world's fastest-growing automotive market trumps any trepidation Hyde might feel.

"It's fun," he says of his job. "This is all a huge opportunity."

Late last year, GM created Shanghai OnStar Telematics Co. The company is a joint venture involving Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.(SAIC), GM, and Shanghai Automotive Industry Sales Co. SAIC and GM own 40 percent each; the sales company owns the remaining 20 percent. Total investment is $46 million.

Hyde must adapt the technology to Chinese needs. GM plans to launch the service in China in 2009.

Hyde is living in China for the first time. The Canadian joined OnStar in the United States in 1995. He admits to being "a little naive" at first about the challenges of launching OnStar in China. But he's learning fast.

"We launch and we adapt," he says.

Education about OnStar is one of his biggest challenges. GM must teach not only China's drivers but also OnStar employees and GM dealers about services it provides.

The services include notifying emergency assistance after a crash, navigational assistance and car diagnostics. No similar service exists in China. Furthermore, a majority of Chinese car owners are first-time drivers.

The fast pace of China's development is another challenge. Roads in China appear seemingly overnight; old buildings, and even not-so-old buildings, are torn down. New structures pop up immediately.

OnStar is using a local company to create and maintain the mapping system.

Not everything about establishing OnStar in China is difficult. China's government jurisdictions are much less complicated than in the United States, Hyde says. The basic emergency response systems are in place.

OnStar has made the most progress in Qingdao, a city in northeast China. Qingdao, with about 4.5 million residents, is considered a medium-size city by Chinese standards.

GM has a plant nearby, and its local partner has good relations with the government, Hyde says.

China's car market may be growing at a double-digit rate, but only about 25 million cars are on the road. So OnStar will have only one call center in China at first. It has two call centers in the United States and one in Canada. In North America, OnStar has more than 5 million subscribers.

The inclusion of OnStar will be possible on all of the models produced at Shanghai General Motors Corp. starting in 2009. Shanghai GM has not decided whether OnStar will be standard or optional, says Ding Lei, Shanghai GM's president. Pricing also has not been decided.

(Source: Automotive News)