"Car as a Platform" Wars: GM Joins Ford

Today OnStar, a GM company focused on in-car communication and security, announced what it calls an API. Though not yet released, nor totally open and perhaps not even an API, the move is certainly part of "car as a Platform." Building apps for cars is a movement that hasn't seen much progress since Ford's announcement two years ago. Though there is still a lot of potential, especially with the car culture in much of the US, some have questioned whether safety will stifle in-car apps.

OnStar explains its technology behind the new API:

OnStar services are enabled by its Advanced Telematics Operating System. ATOMS is the most-powerful automotive cloud platform in the market today – connecting to more than 6 million OnStar customers. Apps created using the API will deliver services and functionality in the same manner. Giving safe access to the ATOMS Cloud Platform is part of a broad 2012 growth initiative OnStar announced Sunday at the Consumer Electronics Show.

A closed version of the OnStar API will be available to developers who apply in the first half of this year. You can express interest by emailing developers@onstar.com.

Though it's not entirely clear what will be possible with the service, OnStar does have a launch partner, which gives some hints at what developers will be able to do with OnStar's platform. RelayRides helps car owners rent their car to others by the hour. OnStar customers will soon be able to make their cars available for rent. RelayRides will enable remote unlock and other features via a smart phone app using OnStar's new developer platform.

RelayRides appears to need the users, as it's only currently in a few US cities. It could also use a public API to help with distribution. Once there are many cars available for rent, will there be people searching for them? The company does appear to have something API-esque, but no Documentation.

OnStar's offering is definitely a hardware play, similar to iPhone, Android and the many TV platforms. However, it has the potential to provide even more if it allows developers to connect their own services to the car. The company could go even further if it made available some of the data in its mobile app. Imagine if you could get information about your car from anywhere--your phone, your TV, maybe even your other car.

Despite the potential, there hasn't been any of the completely open API strategy within automotive the way we've seen on the web. GigaOm has a nice overview of the "future of the vehicle industry," including this take on why it hasn't yet flourished:

Two years ago most auto companies were preparing to go through app stores and the developer community. Enthusiasm stalled, however, over safety concerns. Now, even though companies like Toyota and Ford are actively courting developers, the process of getting an app onto an official car platform is stringent, with none of the benefits of quick sign-up, cheap SDK and turnkey retail apps.

There's obviously a lot of potential and GM has now awakened the car as a platform war. But there's a long drive ahead of them and plenty of questions to be answered at the rest stops along the way.

Be sure to read the next Travel article: 134 Travel APIs: Kayak, Yahoo Travel and HotelsCombined