GM’s new software platform will allow over-the-air updates, in-car subscriptions and possibly facial recognition

General Motors has announced a new “end-to-end” software platform for its cars called “Ultifi” – a play on the name Ultium, which is the automaker’s new electric vehicle battery architecture. GM says the new software will allow over-the-air (OTA) updates, in-vehicle subscription services and “new opportunities to increase customer loyalty.”

The automaker envisions the new software powering everything from the mundane like weather apps, to potentially controversial features like using on-board cameras for facial recognition or detecting children to automatically trigger the car’s child locks. The Linux-based system will also be available to third-party developers who want to build apps and other features for GM customers.

GM is undergoing a “transformation … from an automaker to a platform innovator,” said Scott Miller, vice president of software-defined vehicles at the company. Miller said he envisions Ultifi playing the role of a “powerful hub for all vehicle systems.”

Ultifi will begin rolling out to GM vehicles, both electric and gasoline, in 2023, the company said. By then, GM will have many vehicles equipped with Google’s built-in Android Automotive operating system, which Miller says will run “alongside” its new Ultifi software platform in certain vehicles. Not all GM vehicles will get Android Automotive, which is expected to start rolling out to new vehicles this year, Miller added.

“Android Automotive is a certain subset of the car’s functionality,” he said. “Ultifi is more of a holistic umbrella strategy.”

The software will also be connected to the cloud, which means GM will be able to make decisions for customers without their input. For example, if the owner of a vehicle has left their sunroof open and weather services forecast rain, the vehicle’s software can automatically close the sunroof.

Ultifi isn’t just anchored to the car’s systems, Miller said. GM envisions the new platform interacting with other smart devices, such as a customer’s internet-connected thermostat or a home security system.

GM also sees the potential of in-vehicle purchases and subscriptions as a major new source of revenue for the company. Miller used the example of Super Cruise, GM’s advanced “hands-free” driver assistance system, which is now installed in some of the automaker’s vehicles. In the future, a driver may decide to test Super Cruise on a future road trip. Ultifi will allow that vehicle owner to subscribe to Super Cruise for the trip and then cancel the subscription when it arrives at its destination.

A more common type of subscription that GM customers will face in the future are annual or monthly fees for data storage, similar to the fees Apple and Google charge their smartphone customers today.

GM isn’t the only automaker considering new ways to extract money from its customers beyond selling its vehicle. Much like the tech industry, which over the years has understood how a recurring revenue model allows them to rely on customers paying monthly or annually, automakers are increasingly turning to subscriptions and car expenses to earn more money.

Cars are fuller of computers and software than ever before, which has allowed automakers to add new features or fix issues on the fly with over-the-air software updates.

Automakers like Tesla and BMW have proven that some customers are willing to pay to unlock certain vehicle features, like enhanced infotainment experiences or even even longer range of their electric vehicles. Ford has said its new 2021 F-150 will have live updates covering the car from “bumper to bumper,” which could theoretically allow the company to charge for access to certain features.

It also turned out to be a risky business, with BMW eventually reversing its controversial decision to charge customers an annual fee for using Apple’s CarPlay, which is free in most cars.

Miller said GM realizes that too many subscriptions and fees can turn customers away rather than retain them. “It has to be a win-win proposition for the customer and for us,” he said.

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