by C.G. Lynch

Wireless: Virtual Auto Mechanic

Nov 15, 20052 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

A new service from General Motors’ OnStar subsidiary that performs remote diagnostics on vehicles and sends the owners reports once a month could eventually make it easier for car companies to use this data to prevent manufacturing defects.

The diagnostic tests are enabled through wireless communication with a car’s computer system. When the car is in operation, data about the performance of the vehicle’s critical parts and processes, including air bags, antilock brakes and the engine, is transmitted from the car’s main bus to an onboard computer that sends the information to OnStar. OnStar then processes the information and sends an e-mail to the vehicle owner, who can use it to plan maintenance and repairs.

The service comes with an OnStar subscription and is available on most 2004 or newer GM cars. For model year 2006, more than 50 GM models will have OnStar as an option or as standard equipment.

Currently, the service is meant primarily to attract and retain OnStar customers, according to company executives. Down the road, auto industry analysts say, the technology could provide a new way for GM—and the auto industry generally—to gather data about how vehicles perform and build better cars. “Once we do get the data back in office, there is an opportunity for GM to understand what’s going on in the field,” says Steve Samolinski, OnStar’s service line manager.

Until now, adoption of prognostics—the ability to identify impending system failures by analyzing vehicle data—has been slow, according to Joe Barkai, program director with Manufacturing Insights (owned by IDC, a sister company to CIO’s publisher). Car companies have had to rely instead on dealers to pass on data they collect when they do repairs.

Although not very expensive to implement in comparison to OnStar, remote diagnostics was not a priority for auto manufacturers when the economy was poor, says Mark B¿nger, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Now, that’s changing.