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Electronic Controls and Software Core Competence at GM

When it comes to electronics and software in cars, General Motors gets it. Electronics and software are fundamental at the world’s largest carmaker. GM management understands not only the vast potential of electronics and software to create the features that consumers value, but also that using common hardware and developing reusable software controls will lead to lower costs and improved reliability.

GM is also patient. When it invests in new electronics applications, GM is usually in for the long haul. The best example of that is OnStar, now with 2.5 million subscribers. Another example of GM’s staying power is its large investment in XM Satellite Radio. By the end of 2004, GM will offer XM Radio on every GM nameplate in the U.S. market.

Founded in 1990, XM could finally break even on its investment in 2006. GM has also pioneered with night vision, which it introduced five years ago on Cadillac and still sells today. European consumers recently ranked night vision the eighth most desirable feature in J.D. Power and Associates’ 2003 European Automotive Emerging Technologies Study, despite an assigned price of €1,500.

To strengthen its core electronics capability, GM wants to develop more of its own control functions (algorithms) and reuse them across vehicle lines. “We’ve been totally self-sufficient on the powertrain side,” explains Ronn Jamieson, executive director, electrical controls and software for GM North America.

Jamieson believes the powertrain controller is clearly the heart and soul of the powertrain. GM is now spreading that software self-sufficiency to other parts of the vehicle. “It is those algorithms, those strategies, those control definitions which really are the intellectual property. And if you own that intellectual property, you are in a much better position to reuse that functionality,” Jamieson says.

“Like powertrain, body controls — for instance, how you make the windows operate, the door locks, the lighting controls — are very much related to the character of the car,” notes Jamieson. “We already have competence and good experience in body control, as far as the functional definition, the modeling and the simulation of it.”

General Motors has been aggressive in the application of model-based software development tools, which it used to develop an all new, multiple feature body controller called the common body architecture module.

Set to go into production in a year or two, suppliers expect the body controller will eventually proliferate across GM platforms. GM intends to take on design of some of its own chassis controls next. “Chassis functions are probably the next logical area to move into, because they also define the car — how it rides, handles, performs and feels,” says Jamieson.

GM has been developing its own common electrical architecture, one that supports the reuse of control software across GM platforms globally. With that architecture in place, perhaps by the end of the decade, GM would be able to use common hardware and software interfaces to run control software on electronic control units from different manufacturers.

GM’s work on a common architecture makes it an attractive participant for Autosar, a global industry partnership that is also developing a common architecture, but one that would be used by all the world’s carmakers. While GM has not yet officially joined Autosar, is has submitted all the necessary paper work and will probably become a core partner soon.

Ronn Jamieson’s electrical controls and software group gets a lot of support and understanding from top management at GM North America. Jamieson reports to Matt Tsien, executive director of vehicle systems, who is an electrical engineer. Bob Kruse, executive director of vehicle integration is also an electrical engineer. “The fact that they understand and appreciate electrical/electronics system development is very helpful,” says Jamieson.  Approximately 1,100 engineers report to him, 30 percent of whom are with GM suppliers.

Paul Hansen is a strategy consultant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He publishes The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics, a business and technology newsletter.

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