In its first move to expand Internet commerce under the eGM initiative, General Motors will introduce early next year a new OnStar service that connects motorists to the Web.
Known as Virtual Advisor, the new OnStar service will link motorists to a broad menu of online news, weather, sports and traffic reports.
With its computerized voice recognition technology, Virtual Advisor also will be able to read e-mail to subscribers as they commute to work or drive to the grocery store.
GM is moving quickly onto the Internet to build a closer link with its huge customer base - and keep potential high-tech competitors at bay. While success is far from certain, GM is showing that it is serious about eGM's promise to move at 'Internet speed.'
Mark Hogan, group vice president and head of eGM, recently
acknowledged that he plans to unveil Virtual Advisor at the Specialty Equipment Market Association aftermarket trade show in Las Vegas next month.
Hogan declined to offer details, and a GM spokesman declined to comment. But Automotive News has confirmed details of the Virtual Advisor program with three sources familiar with GM's plans.
The market for mobile Web services is unproven. But the technology to deliver those services already is penetrating the market for cell phones and handheld devices such as the PalmPilot.
Automakers, electronics suppliers, wireless services and Web entrepreneurs are jostling for position to sell hardware, software and services to motorists.
For GM, the Virtual Advisor is a key part of its plan to form closer links to customers and capture a bigger chunk of the parts-and-service money that customers spend on their vehicles.
For example, OnStar subscribers will be able to log vehicle data into a Virtual Advisor Web page. Virtual Advisor then would transmit automatically by e-mail such things as recall notices, reminders for scheduled maintenance and discount offers for oil changes.
Moreover, GM could possibly use Virtual Advisor to market many nonautomotive products such as mortgage financing through GMAC.
Under eGM, which was announced in August, GM says it will expand OnStar from 75,000 to nearly 1 million users in the next 18 months by making the service standard or optional on a wide variety of vehicles.
NO PRICES YET
The Virtual Advisor service is scheduled to be introduced early in the second quarter of next year. Pricing has not yet been set.
Currently, OnStar subscribers use a cellular telephone handset or a three-button device in the vehicle cockpit to connect with a call center operator known as the OnStar adviser. A global positioning system receiver allows OnStar advisers to locate a subscriber's vehicle and offer driving directions, nearby restaurant listings or emergency services.
For the three-button OnStar service, subscribers currently pay a $695 hardware and installation charge and an annual fee of $199 for the basic service package. A premium service package is available for $399 per year.
With Virtual Advisor, the OnStar user connects to the system in the usual way and asks the OnStar adviser to switch the call over to the automated service.
Users of Virtual Advisor won't need a special OnStar e-mail address; they will be able to use their existing e-mail accounts, according to a source familiar with GM's plans.
It's not clear, however, whether Virtual Advisor will be able to reach into security-clad corporate Internets to fetch e-mail. That will be crucial for a service that caters to a mobile work force, said another source.