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GM: OnStar upgrade bypassed dealers

Automotive News reports on how OnStar is updating software remotely.

DETROIT -- General Motors Co. has upgraded software on its vehicles' OnStar module remotely -- without requiring the vehicles' owners to visit a dealership -- and will do so again, said Karl Stracke, vice president of global vehicle engineering.

The action is part of an expanded assertiveness by GM to control its software. But some dealers argue that they should retain control of vehicle software and customer relations.

"We manage our software development internally," Stracke told Automotive News. "We need to have the internal capability and not be dependent on the suppliers. We use and integrate the software of the suppliers, but I am writing the codes. I am the intellectual-property owner of the codes.

Through wireless communications, automakers increasingly have had the ability to upgrade or fix software on consumers' vehicles remotely. But some have been wary of doing so.

Dealers have long argued that they are the automakers' customers, and the consumers are the dealers' customers. If the software on a vehicle needs to be fixed or upgraded, the dealers say, the consumer should go back to the dealer for the procedure. That builds loyalty to their dealership and offers the opportunity for additional service work.

"The question is what type of upgrade you're talking about," Stracke said. "Customer care issues" will be upgraded through the dealer, he said, while "quality improvement initiatives" will be handled directly from GM to the vehicle.

Ford Motor Co. hasn't upgraded software remotely yet but may eventually, said Barb Samardzich, Ford's vice president of global powertrain engineering.

"I think the technology for wireless downloads is available," she said. "That's certainly not what we're doing yet. We want to make sure we have proper controls, proper capabilities."

Ford recently boosted torque and horsepower in V-8 turbodiesel engines powering the Ford Super Duty pickups, through a 30-minute software adjustment to the powertrain control module. But it had customers go to dealerships for the upgrade.

"I can definitely envision the day when we do software drops, not just for engine controls but for technologies like our Sync or MyFord Touch," Samardzich said. "We could do that without a customer coming into a dealership. We're not there yet, but that one's not hard to envision."

GM's Stracke said, "We want to provide more features to the customers in the car," but added: "We want to be very intuitive in all our vehicle interfaces. We need to be very careful that we make this not too complex."

Engineers for GM's OnStar telematics service now report to Stracke, part of his increased oversight of software-related engineering. OnStar engineering previously was handled separately from vehicle engineering.

Stracke said wireless access to the Internet in the car is a feature GM should offer. Asked why consumers would pay a monthly subscription for something that's already available on their mobile phone, he said, "I'm not a believer of subscription models, but for OnStar, it's still paying off.

(Source: Automotive News)