Mar 12, 2024 - Business

GM's Silicon Valley makeover just got more complicated

Animated gif of a computer loading bar in place of a license plate on the back of a car

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mike Abbott, the former Apple exec anointed less than a year ago as General Motors' new software czar, is leaving the company.

Why it matters: The departure upends GM's recent efforts to revamp its vehicle software strategy.

Zoom in: An influx of leaders from Apple, Amazon, Meta and other tech firms was intended to bring a fresh perspective from Silicon Valley, with Abbott in charge.

  • GM CEO Mary Barra has made giant bets on electrification and software, but the automaker has stumbled on both initiatives.

Driving the news: GM said Abbott was stepping down for health reasons but would continue as an adviser.

  • Baris Cetinok, recruited by Abbott six months ago as vice president of product, will take over as interim head of software and services amid a replacement search.
  • Cetinok tells Axios the mix of expertise Abbott assembled in recent months — seasoned GM veterans plus outside tech execs — has already created "a software and services powerhouse," and that work will continue.

The big picture: As with the rest of the auto industry, GM is wrestling with the transformation of vehicles designed to carry people from A to B into cloud-connected supercomputers on wheels.

  • Cars are becoming a rolling platform for software-controlled features and functions that can be frequently updated over the air, from automated driving tech to customized digital services and entertainment.

To help make that happen, Abbott led a reorganization at GM to integrate software and services with hardware — a common approach among tech companies, but new to automakers.

  • Cetinok articulated GM's new thinking in an interview before Abbott's announced departure.
  • "Vehicles are not just hardware, but are hardware plus software plus services. This is what you experience with a phone, or a PlayStation, or a smart thermostat," said Cetinok, who helped develop products like Apple Pay and Apple Wallet.

Between the lines: Customers don't distinguish between the hardware, software and services in such devices because they're all deeply integrated into the end product.

  • And the user experience is consistent, whether you're using an Apple iPhone or an iPad, for example.
  • GM's goal: To offer an equally seamless experience across all of its vehicles.

Reality check: Cars are far more complex than phones, and the stakes are much higher in the highly regulated auto industry — a software error in an automobile could be deadly.

  • Plus, cars are unique compared to other types of hardware.
  • People buy an iPhone for the Apple experience, not because it looks good in their hands. People choose a vehicle for specific reasons — they need the utility of a pickup truck, for example, or they like the styling or performance of a particular sports car.
  • Striking the right balance between uniquely designed hardware and consistent software is a goal for all automakers.

What to watch: The transition to electric vehicles allows GM and other automakers to simplify their products around a handful of centralized computers and multiple layers of updatable software.

The bottom line: In his brief tenure as GM's software czar, Abbott pointed the carmaker in the right direction. Now comes the hard work to get there.

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