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Can Your Car Talk? - WebSphere Journal Exclusive Interview with OnStar

Can Your Car Talk? - WebSphere Journal Exclusive Interview with OnStar

Jack Martin, editor-in-chief of WebSphere Journal, recently sat down with Bruce Radloff, CTO of OnStar, and Tony Lent, vice president of OnStar's Wireless Strategic Business Unit, to talk about how they use WebSphere.

WebSphere Journal: Bruce, what does the chief technology officer of OnStar do?
Bruce Radloff: I manage the advanced systems development group here at OnStar.

WJ: What does the advance systems development group focus on?
It maintains an end-to-end overview of what OnStar is all about, with a focus on new product innovation. That overview includes three primary components: the vehicles themselves, and the system integration that goes along with them; the network that connects the vehicles to our back office; and the back office, which comprises several different platforms, including our call centers, Web interaction and support, and OnStar Virtual Advisor, which is how we provide voice-activated, Web-based automatic services to the driver.

WJ: Give me a primer on what OnStar is?
That's easy. OnStar is the industry-leading provider of safety and security in-vehicle services. We use GPS technology and an embedded cell phone to link the vehicle and driver to a 24-hour call center where operators, whom we call advisors, are available to respond to all kinds of service requests, from emergencies to stolen vehicle locations to simple routing support to remote door unlocks.

WJ: OnStar services include automatic airbag notification. How does that work?
Going back to our early days, airbag notification has been a cornerstone of our safety and security offerings. In the event the airbags go off, there's a trigger in the electronics within the vehicle that automatically generates an outbound call to the 24-hour OnStar call center. That call transmits vehicle loßcation information, then toggles over to a voice call so the advisor can speak to the occupants in the vehicle.

WJ: How many subscribers do you have?
Right now we're sitting at about 2.5 million moving to, we hope, 3 million by the end of 2004.

WJ: Recently, someone told me that OnStar has been instrumental in recovering a lot of cars that have been stolen. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Right. In the event your vehicle is stolen, you can report it to the police or you can call OnStar and we'll help you report it to local police authorities. Once we have the police involved and get their approval, we can locate the vehicle - from a data perspective, we call into the vehicle to retrieve latitude/longitude information -- and share that information with the police so they can try and recover the stolen vehicle.

WJ: It kind of takes the fun out of stealing cars!
That's the idea.

WJ: Another thing I find very interesting is being able to ask OnStar how a car or truck is running.
That's our GM Goodwrench remote diagnostics service. I think, as we move forward, our abilities to help our customers better manage their vehicle by understanding the data that the vehicle produces and translating that into actionable additions for our subscribers is going to be huge. All of us at one point in time or another have probably experienced the "check engine" light coming on. What OnStar can do, at the customer's request, is actually go and do what we call a diagnostic probe and pull out the diagnostic trouble code and then give the customer some advice in terms of what actions can be taken. It goes back to the whole peace of mind issue with our subscribers. When the light comes on, you can hit the OnStar button and we can tell you a range of options: pull off to the side of the road and help is on its way; or that there doesn't appear to be a big issue and just make sure you have a dealer look at it the next time you're in for service. And in some instances, the issue will resolve itself with an ignition recycling, so you basically don't have to do anything.

I think it's a great way for us to drive some connection and build that bridge back to the dealership. Obviously, the GM Goodwrench brand is a big one for us and I think we believe that GM dealer service people know our vehicles better than anybody else so they can solve the problem quickly and efficiently.

WJ: I recently experienced the OnStar Virtual Advisor firsthand while test-driving a 2004 Silverado and it was incredible. Could you explain to me exactly how that worked?
There is core integration in the Web components so you can go out to a "my OnStar" Web site to establish information preferences. We've tied those preferences to the customer care records that we receive in our database, which is basically the vehicle, the vehicle site, those kinds of things and then we put the partnerships together in area content providers. Let me give you an example: After connecting with the Virtual Advisor, you ask for traffic. We have the ability to deliver traffic delays or construction information for a metro area or for a radius around the exact vehicle location at the time you call in. You can go out to the Web and put in some specified routes, and then receive your traffic information by route as well. Basically what we do is update your profile with the vehicle data, so we know what type of vehicle, where the vehicle is, and then the content that we get from our partners.

WJ: It completely changed the concept of driving a car by having that information available. How are your subscribers taking to the service?
One of the big challenges we've had since we started the business is getting people up-to-speed with all of its capabilities. I think everybody sort of recognizes OnStar from the messaging we've been doing on the radio and our advertising, but they can't be familiar with everything we have. A lot of the other services, like Virtual Advisor, are extensions that offer additional value. I think the users feel very similar to the way you do, but we're still trying to get that message out.

WJ: It seems to me that you're shifting into a total service mode. You're taking service to the next level by leveraging technology.
I think we have a set of capabilities now that has enabled us to take service to a different level. That's really what it's all about: helping the people that buy our product in more creative ways that actually minimize the impact on them.

WJ: I understand that your messaging is done exclusively with JavaBeans. How does that system work?
Early in our development process we made a conscious decision to adhere to the J2EE specification. As a result, we have selected products that serve as containers for our Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs). Messaging is handled in one of two ways:

  • Our synchronous communications leverage RMI as the messaging mechanism between our Session EJBs in the container and the client, or Web Services (SOAP/HTTP) as the messaging mechanism between objects at the enterprise services layer.
  • Asynchronous communications are handled through the Java Messaging Service (JMS) utilizing either a Message Driven EJB or JMS libraries implemented directly in the client.
We have found that the EJB construct has served us well in managing the large number of simultaneous client sessions we support and has facilitated the structuring and management of our business logic and persistent data objects.

WJ: I understand that General Motors is using IBM's voice technology for all of the voice interaction that goes with OnStar, which is an extraordinarily cool thing. How does that work?
The technology is in the client device that is installed in the vehicle. The IBM product will be embedded into every vehicle that will be manufactured with our new digital hardware and it will govern all the interactions that take place between our unit and the subscriber. I think the big capability for us is what we refer to as continuous recognition enabling continuous digit dialing. With our older hardware, our Personal Calling users had to dial one digit at a time, and wait for the system to repeat the number. That's eliminated with our new continuous digit dialing. A couple other functions, such as number storage, have also been streamlined.

WJ: Is that the same technology when you talk to the virtual advisor and they give you directions?
It depends on what actions you're taking about. We're in the process right now of actually migrating some of the voice rec technology in our back office to newer platforms. Our back-end offering right now is around OnStar Personal Calling minute replenishment and automated demonstration/education. Currently all of our IVR capabilities are hosted on IBM products.

WJ: How do you keep it up and running?
We have a 24x7 ops staff with access to a suite of tools that perform continuous monitoring. These tools enable us to keep track of the system performance, capacities and status. Our call centers are geographically dispersed so that if we have a huge ice storm or snowstorm here in Detroit our systems are not impacted.

WJ: Now we're talking with Tony Lent, vice president of OnStar's Wireless Strategic Business Unit. Tony, what do you do at OnStar?
 Tony Lent:
It's a combination of sales, servicing, and marketing. There is also an operations component - I'm here to make sure that our services meet the needs of our customers.

WJ: Do you have anything to do with OnStar's Personal Calling program?
Absolutely. Personal Calling is a fast-growing business that started in 2000 and has grown significantly over the last couple of years. In fact, we recently sold our 300 millionth minute. We estimate that our subscribers make and receive about 5 million calls in their vehicles each month.

WJ: That's a lot of minutes.
It sure is. What we're finding is that our messaging really works. 85% of our customers have a wireless phone already and we talk about using the OnStar phone "just in case" - OnStar Personal Calling is for those who might not be able to get service from a hand-held portable or for customers who prefer to talk hands-free instead of using a handheld portable. It's also great for someone who forgot his or her phone, or battery life is low. Our OnStar minutes are good for up to 12 months. Customers can buy a bundle for as little as $14 for a 12-month bundle and there is no monthly access charge, no additional long distance or roaming charges. And the number of minutes sold is a good indication that our subscribers find increasing value in OnStar Personal Calling.

WJ: I test drove one of your Silverados recently, and what I found interesting is that the phone is literally built into the car. There is no phone; but there is a phone.
It's an embedded phone and is a safer option because it is hands free and voice activated. Customers don't have to deal with a keypad, they can keep their eyes on the road; and they can even program our version of speed-dial numbers - we call them name tags - customers can program up to 20 of those for the people they call most often.

WJ: You have a very different type of handset than what the traditional cell phone user would see. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It's not a traditional handset at all. OnStar has three simple buttons, built either in the mirror or in the dashboard, that you use to make emergency calls, access OnStar safety and security services or dial the phone. For OnStar Personal Calling you just press the white dot button once, say "Call, " then you can provide a name tag if you've already loaded that number in. In the event that you haven't loaded the nametag, dialing is as simple as saying, "Dial". Then it asks you to say the phone number.

WJ: The last thing to talk about is Generation 6 hardware, which is just about to come to market. I understand there are significant changes from what the public has experienced so far. Tell me about them.
We just launched our Gen 6 hardware. A couple of key things about that are that it's our sixth generation of hardware in eight years and that's pretty phenomenal, especially for an automotive manufacturer. It is digital hardware - effectively dual mode, so it's a combination of analog and digital. That's important for us because it provides our customers with greater reliability in that they have access to a larger service area. Because it is digital, the call quality overall has improved. It's also much more user friendly especially in how you dial. Right now, when you dial a phone number for personal calling you have to do one digit at a time. With the Generation 6 hardware you can just say the number all in one stream. We find that people prefer this hardware. We've had a chance to test it out with our GM dealers, with our employees, and with customers, and they really appreciate the enhancements. So, we're really state of the art as far as voice recognition technology.

WJ: Did you develop that technology yourself?
No. We did that with our partners at IBM.

WJ: Are there any other Generation 6 changes for the vehicles?
In time, the new digital hardware will allow us to make the embedded phone work with a hand-held device - sharing the same bundle of minutes.

WJ: I hear you've gotten some interesting feedback on your Generation 6 offering from people who buy fleets of cars and trucks.
Yes. We have heard from our fleet customers, who are very interested in the capability to use a portable phone in conjunction with the OnStar service. They love the idea of the hands-free capability in the vehicle. They like the fact that there is a three-watt embedded wireless phone and an externally mounted antenna. And the hands-free aspect is consistent with most companies' safe driving policies. We see this as a big opportunity in the future.

WJ: Are you doing that integration with Bluetooth?
No. We are finding that what they really want is a handset that works in conjunction with the embedded phone, or we're looking for hands-free capability in the vehicle. Bluetooth doesn't provide the range of services that OnStar does - the emergency services, unlocking your vehicle, and so on. That's important for us, to stick to safety and security, but also give them that extra, which is basically a handset that works in conjunction with the embedded phone. We'll continue to evaluate Bluetooth's capabilities - that's something we do with many emerging technologies.

Interview Bios:
Tony Lent was named vice president of OnStar wireless in October, 2002 and is responsible for development and execution of OnStar's wireless business strategies, including OnStar Personal Calling and Virtual Advisor. Prior to joining OnStar, he held leadership positions with Sprint PCS, and most recently was area vice president of the Great Lakes consumer area in Sprint PCS' North Region. In this role, he was responsible for directing all sales, marketing, and consumer relations activities in the area. He also assumed the full profit and loss responsibility for the area, which was the second largest area in Sprint PCS' 11 areas.

Bruce D. Radloff is chief technology officer of OnStar, and is responsible for the oversight and development of current and future technologies associated with the OnStar service. Bruce joined General Motors Information Systems and Services in 1997 as director of systems engineering. He was then reassigned as chief information officer of OnStar and held that role until August 2001. Prior to joining GM, Bruce was director of market development systems for Bell Atlantic in Arlington, Va.

More Stories By Jacques Martin

Jack Martin, editor-in-chief of WebSphere Journal, is cofounder and CEO of Simplex Knowledge Company (publisher of Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Journal, an Internet software boutique specializing in WebSphere development. Simplex developed the first remote video transmission system designed specifically for childcare centers, which received worldwide media attention, and the world's first diagnostic quality ultrasound broadcast system. Jack is co-author of Understanding WebSphere, from Prentice Hall.

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