General Motors OnStar

Client: General Motors

Authors/Consultants: Barabba V, Huber C, Cooke F, Pudar N, Smith J, Paich M

In 1997, General Motors (GM) assembled a project team to develop its OnStar telematics business. Telematics is the provision of communications services to cars, including crash notification, navigation, Internet access, and traffic information. OnStar is GM’s two-way vehicle communication system that provides a variety of services that enhance safety, security, entertainment, and productivity. At the time, GM faced fundamental strategic decisions with respect to OnStar. The default and safe strategy was to market OnStar as a car feature that would improve vehicle safety and security. An alternate strategy was to view OnStar as a service business that could contribute greatly to GM’s profits.

GM formed a project team to consider alternative strategies for OnStar. GM makes important strategic decisions through the dialogue decision process, in which the project team interacts with the decision board that is responsible for actually making the decision and committing resources. Dynamic modeling can be a part of this process. In this case, application of modeling was difficult. In the vehicle business, GM has decades of experience and plentiful historical data. Modelers can build on a wealth of previous analyses and examples of best practice. The OnStar business was very different in that the telematics market did not exist. To cope with the inherent uncertainty, we needed a modeling process that would allow integration of various methods and data sources. A simulation model was our core tool in the OnStar strategy project. The final model had six key sectors: customer acquisition, customer choice, alliances, customer service, finances, and dealer behavior.

In late 1997, the project team recommended a very aggressive strategy that included installation on all GM vehicles, recruitment of other manufacturers into the OnStar system, making the first year of service free and aggressively pursuing alliances with content partners. Through 2001, the implementation of the OnStar business strategy has progressed very much as expected. The project contributed to creating a new enterprise mental model for GM, in which the transactions revenue is augmented with a stream of revenue from service businesses like OnStar. The OnStar project also created the new telematics business which did not exist before GM implemented its strategy. Today, Wall Street analysts project that the industry will grow to $12 billion over the next 10 years. By far, OnStar’s most important contribution is saving lives. OnStar answers thousands of emergency calls each month and has often made the difference between life and death.

More information on this case can be found in Barabba V., Huber C., Cooke F., Pudar N., Smith J., Paich M. (2002). A multimethod approach for creating new business models: the General Motors OnStar project. Interfaces 32(1): 20–34.

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