Cars are quickly becoming the new connected devices. Equipped with voice-command, streaming media centers, navigation displays and more, the newest line of vehicles out of major automakers are borrowing more from computers, the web and mobile technology than ever before. Now, riding this wave of rapid change, General Motors — a company still seemingly recovering from its bankruptcy — has launched its own venture capital arm.
Called General Motors Ventures, this new entity will be distributing $100 million to smaller companies developing groundbreaking automotive features, starting on July 1.
It’s meaningful that GM is the first of its brethren to make this move. Its Chevy Volt has gotten a lot of good press for being one of the most technologically advanced cars to hit the marker — beyond is unique electric powertrain. Just last month, it announced that it would be using the Android operating system to provide navigation tools in addition to its OnStar system. The news has prompted the media and analysts alike to dub it the first “Android car” — a cutting edge distinction.
The venture branch of the company will be looking to back companies working on similar consumer electronics integrations (for entertainment, the web and more), but also more efficient engine technologies, hybrid vehicle designs, and maybe even advanced battery architectures. It may also take over investments made by GM proper in biofuel developers like Coskata and Mascoma (both also backed by Khosla Ventures).
In forming a dedicated VC practice, General Motors appears to be taking a page out of the playbook of major IT companies, like Intel (Intel Capital) and IBM (IBM Venture Capital Group), and fuel companies, like Shell (Shell Technology Ventures Fund) and Chevron (Chevron Technology Ventures), who have done the same to jumpstart technologies that complement their core businesses. It seems like a more ambitious move for a big automaker however, since they are generally not as nimble as even the largest tech companies. It’s impressive to see them responding so quickly to changes in their industry, especially considering how much their business has eroded in the U.S.
It’s also bold for GM to be making this decision given its recent financial history. Yes, the company just posted its first profitable quarter in three years at the start of 2010, and it has repaid $6.7 billion of the money the U.S. government loaned it following its bankruptcy, but this doesn’t mean that it’s got money to burn. It still owes the government $43 billion more and is prepping itself for a public stock offering before the year’s end. Funding startups, in this light, looks like a gamble.
That said, it may very well inspire its peers — Ford, Nissan, Toyota — to pursue a similar strategy. All of a sudden it’s become important for car companies to be pathbreakers in the technology space, and those that don’t realize this risk being left in the dust. They aren’t just competing with each other, either. Now that China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest car market, Chinese companies like BYD — generously funded by Warren Buffett — will also be racing to churn out fresh, innovative features.