GM wants to use artificial intelligence to sell you stuff while driving

General Motors has partnered with IBM to add the latter's artificial intelligence smarts to its cars. IBM's Watson will be used to augment GM's OnStar service, which currently offers features like vehicle tracking and turn-by-turn navigation for a monthly subscription fee.

The upgraded OnStar Go, though, seems to be more about advertising than anything else. GM says the main use will be to let drivers "connect and interact with their favorite brands," with Watson crunching data on users habits to deliver personalized services. Depending on your outlook, some of these services could be genuinely useful. Or, they could be just another unnecessary and intrusive attempt to sell you things. This time, though, it's happening in your car.

Details on these services are pretty thin at the moment, but GM has outlined a number of potential uses, including:

  • Curating "personalized experiences" on iHeartRadio based on drivers' listening habits
  • Directing drivers to nearby Exxon and Mobil fuel stations when their car is running low on gas
  • Making in-car payments using Mastercard's Masterpass system

As mentioned above, details on these features are few and far between, but even these brief descriptions raises some questions. For example, will the car direct you only to Exxon and Mobile fuel stations when you're running low on gas? What if other fuel stations are cheaper or nearer? The Wall Street Journal notes that GM and IBM will share revenue generated by these advertising tie-ins, which makes it seem doubly unfair to drivers who are already paying for an OnStar subscription to then get advertised to in a deal that might actually be detrimental to them (by directing them to a far away fuel station) but that pays out for GM.

Who really benefits from these systems?

Other features outlined by GM seem more about competing with the digital assistants offered by companies like Amazon and Google. These assistants are supposed to learn about your habits in order to make timely suggestions, like, leaving work 20 minutes early to avoid traffic. GM suggests that the AI-infused OnStar Go might be able to make similar interventions; for example, reminding a "working father to pick up diapers and formula at the pharmacy a few miles before his exit, so he won’t have to leave the house again once he gets home."

That certainly sounds useful in theory, but there's no explanation of where GM is getting this data from. Would drivers have to explain that they have children during a set-up process? And how would OnStar Go know when they're running low on diapers? Does it have access to some to-do list?

In fairness to GM, this is all opt-in, and the company describes these features only as "potential uses" — suggesting it's not exactly thought through what implementing them would mean. But if it hasn't fully developed these ideas, it probably shouldn't be touting them as benefits. At any rate, GM says it wants to make OnStar Go available in two million cars by the end of 2017. Looking out for branded adverts coming soon to a dashboard near you.


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