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Not Your Father's Networked Car

NEW YORK -- To the world's largest auto manufacturer, information technology means cutting manufacturing time to market, creating smarter cars, shaving internal costs and launching a phenomenal new era in cars, a General Motors information technology executive said.

IT is central to the company, said Tony Scott, chief technology officer for GM's Information Systems and Services division. "It's everywhere. It's in our cars, homes, everywhere. So, with all due respect to Nicholas Carr, IT does matter." Scott was referring to Carr's Harvard Business Review article, "IT Doesn't Matter," which continues to spark debate in the industry over whether information technology has become so commoditized that it no longer matters.

During a keynote address at the CeBIT America conference here Wednesday, Scott said networked cars that you manage in much the same way you manage your desktop computer are a lot closer than we think.

In 1970, a typical GM car contained about 100 lines of code. By 1990, it was running about 100,000 lines of code. By 2010, predicts Scott, cars will average about 100 million lines of code.

"And that's just what OEMs are going to put into cars," he said. "Everything of value will be connected to the Internet. That includes autos."

With over 184 million new Ethernet ports and over eight billion microprocessors shipped in 2003 alone, the implications for cars in this connected universe are pretty phenomenal, he said.

"We're already seeing that benefit," he added, and not only by being able to do more interesting things while in a car. "It's about better gas mileage, handling. And it's the result of particular software that's running in the car."

Indeed, the use of technology helps explain why software is now the single biggest cost factor in the production of a car, Scott said. All the other costs associated with auto manufacturing are dropping, largely because of information technology that has helped streamline the flow of information across divisions and shorten production times.

In 1996, GM's $4 billion IT budget was the largest in the industry. Since then, the company has cut about $1 billion from that annual spend to become one of the lowest spenders on IT in the auto industry. One reason for the lower budget is that 100 percent of the company's IT is outsourced, especially after GM's spinout of EDS in 1996.

The result is a very different GM today from the one that used to make everything that went into the car except the tires. "Today, we're a much more collaborative company," Scott said.

Cutting the costs of legacy systems remains one of his main challenges as a technology officer for the company. "GM had a reputation for being big and slow. We're still big, but I don't think we're slow."

Scott said cheaper sensors installed in cars are changing the game of auto manufacturing in surprising ways. "That combination you're going to see in everything. The ability to detect the environment, what's going on and what's wrong with it, changes the game."

Take GM's OnStar GPS system, offered in many high-end and mid-level cars. Scott said in a typical month, the system transmits about 850 stolen vehicle reports by owners, about 16,000 roadside assistance requests, 30,000 remote unlocking services and about 23,000 remote diagnostics for customers. That's from some 2.5 million subscribers, all of which represent opportunities each month to "give us quality feedback of what's going on with cars. This is only going to grow."

As for whether auto enthusiasts will still be able to tinker on today's sophisticated cars the way Dad used to, Scott said sure -- as long as they're software engineers.