DETROIT — General Motors' introduction of an in-vehicle e-commerce app called Marketplace last week was also a discreet demonstration of its new ability to add functionality to millions of Wi-Fi-equipped vehicles already on the road.
The Marketplace app allows drivers to use the car's touchscreen to make dinner reservations or pre-order food and coffee. It marks the first major consumer-facing update that GM sent wirelessly, or "over the air," to a new generation of infotainment systems that debuted on 2017 Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC models, featuring high-speed Internet connections. Other services such as paying for gasoline and scheduling service at dealerships are expected to launch in 2018.
About 1.9 million 2017 and 2018 model vehicles received the update wirelessly, just as smartphones download software upgrades or new apps. Owners had to agree to download Marketplace before receiving the download, which the automaker sent in phases over multiple days. Owners don't need to subscribe to a data plan to download or use Marketplace.
Since 2009, GM has remotely updated its in-vehicle OnStar services, but until now it hadn't performed any major OTA updates for infotainment and mechanical software systems the way competitors such as Tesla Inc. have.
GM CEO Mary Barra said in July that the automaker would incorporate such technologies "before 2020."
OTA updates are seen as a key part of connected and autonomous vehicles, as they let companies refine systems over time and provide real-time updates. They are expected to save automakers billions of dollars and could fundamentally alter the relationships among drivers, automakers and dealerships. More recalls could be handled without dealership involvement, for example, and consumers may be inclined to keep their vehicles longer if new functions could be added over time.
Marketplace appears to be the beginning of that shift for GM.
"We are using it also to improve how our customers interact with the vehicle and the dealership network," said Santiago Chamorro, GM vice president of global connected customer experience, during a media event last week in Detroit. He emphasized that the connections are secure, and Marketplace isn't meant to be an in-vehicle digital billboard.
Marketplace, according to Chamorro, is expected to quickly expand from about a dozen offerings — such as ordering Dunkin' Donuts food or coffee or reserving a table at TGI Fridays — to other services such as Starbucks coffee and dealership services, including oil changes.
Vehicles will have the capability to alert drivers of needed maintenance services and schedule them, if the driver wants.
The system is designed to be used while driving, though some safety advocates questioned the wisdom of incorporating a new source of distraction into the car.
"There's nothing about this that's safe," National Safety Council President Deborah Hersman told Bloomberg News. "If this is why they want Wi-Fi in the car, we're going to see fatality numbers go up even higher than they are now."
GM spokesman Vijay Iyer reiterated that Marketplace was developed using the voluntary driver-distraction guidelines adopted by the Auto Alliance and GM's "own strict guiding principles."
"Marketplace is designed to minimize manual interactions, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel," he said in an email to Automotive News. "Each Marketplace interaction is limited to a few simple steps, similar to finding and selecting a radio station."
Marketplace has a section dedicated to offers specific to GM vehicles, such as oil change discounts or deals on GM accessories.
Current partners with Marketplace are Wingstop, Shell, ExxonMobil, Applebee's, Parkopedia, Priceline.com, Delivery.com and IHOP. Starbucks is expected to be added in early 2018.