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2012-10-09 10:02

VOLT STARTED IT: GM is on a push to bring its smart in-car technology in house as it works to set itself apart from its rivals.


DETROIT, Michigan - General Motors is moving past layoffs and the Motor City's rusty, low-tech image. It's setting out on its own to develop software and invent the most advanced gizmos for your car.

America's biggest automaker plans to hire up to 10 000 computer professionals in the next three-to-five years as it tries to lead the auto industry with cutting-edge technology.


It's a bold and expensive move, counter to the industry's history of buying software and other electronic applications from outside companies. Experts say it's also the start of a trend as manufacturers realise that software is among the few things that will set them apart from competitors.

David Kirkpatrick is the author of a book about Facebook and CEO of Techonomy Media Inc., a New York firm that specialises in setting up technology conferences. He said: "The companies that build the software themselves in general are going to have an advantage. If you outsource the development of software in particular to others, you can risk ... your own ability to compete in the future."

General Motors isn't alone in trying to move more technology development under its roof. But the plans of its biggest competitor, Ford, aren't nearly as ambitious.

Ford recently joined GM, BMW and Renault-Nissan in opening a technology office in California's Silicon Valley, although it's staffed by only about 15 people.

GM is at work recruiting workers to four new information technology centres around the US. Its first "Information Technology Innovation Centre" was announced in September, 2012, in Austin, Texas, with plans to hire 500 programmers and software experts. And on Monday, October 8, the carmaker unveiled plans to hire 1500 more at a second computer centre in Warren, Michigan, on the campus of its big tech centre.

GM already has product designers, engineers and other technical experts at the site, including the team that created the Chevrolet Volt electric car.

Staff at the centres will try to stay on top of software trends. They'll develop the latest ways to link smartphones with cars or control a vehicle's heating and air conditioning with voice commands. They'll also be counted on to invent technology that no one's thought of yet. And GM also sees long-term cost savings when the centres are fully in operation.

GM chief information officer Randy Mott was Hewlett-Packard's CIO until he joined the automaker in February, 2012. "We're currently seeking the next generation of game-changers to help us usher in a new age of automotive innovation."


Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm, said GM's strategy is to try to differentiate its products from other automakers. With the gap in quality between brands shrinking, the way a car drives and its electronics soon will be the only things that set a company apart, he says.

Currently, GM and most automakers rely on outside companies for touch screen and other technology. But often those companies sell the technology to multiple carmakers, or new software is sold in an expensive bidding war, Robinet says.

Ford, for instance, worked with Microsoft on its pioneering Sync system, which brought voice activation technology into cars ahead of most competitors. But Ford only had exclusive use of the system for a year before Microsoft was able to license it to other companies, namely Hyundai and Kia.

Outside companies have so much expertise that it will take years for GM to catch up, making it unlikely that the company will completely walk away from outside firms, Robinet concluded.

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