DETROIT -- Call GM's new Marketplace app a good start, then pull up a seat to see what comes next. The system has the potential to save time and make everything from the daily commute to family vacations easier -- but it still has plenty of growing to do.
Marketplace lets you order food, make restaurant and hotel reservations and find gas stations from behind the wheel. Two million drivers already have cars equipped with Marketplace. GM expects to that double this year.
I recently tested the feature in a 2018 Buick Regal TourX sport wagon. Among other things, Marketplace gave me a new appreciation for Dunkin' Donuts and convinced me the system could become one customers rely on as GM adds features.
"Marketplace is in its infancy," said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports magazine.
Despite that, Marketplace was controversial the moment GM announced it in December. "There's nothing about this that's safe," National Safety Council president and driver-distraction watchdog Deborah Hersman told Bloomberg 24 hours after GM began downloading it free to customers' vehicles.
I found Marketplace simple and easy to use. Yes, it takes your eyes off the road briefly, but no more than adjusting the cabin temperature.
Its icons on the touch screen are big; easy to recognize and select while you drive. Like most touch screens, the one in my test car could have responded quicker, but it was no worse than any other vehicle I've tested, and better than many.
To reduce distraction, GM limits the number of options you can consider while driving. Tap the Dunkin' Donuts icon and you get three choices:
Pick "recent orders" and big squares with your three most recent orders pop up. My screen offered coffee and doughnuts on the drive to work. One more tap and the order was sent, including payment from a credit card. Pull up to the drive-through or walk inside to the pickup lane, say your name and voila!, doughnuts.
"GM is being very careful to manage this for safety," said IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. "This is a business that's going to grow and Marketplace has a lot of promise. GM is taking it very seriously."
GM followed government and its own guidelines for driver distraction, said John McFarland, director of GM global digital experience.
So far, there's no word of complaints or problems from the 2-million-plus drivers whose GM vehicles received the app in an over-the-air update in early December. Given the number of iTunes users who pitched a fit when Apple surprised them with a free, but unrequested, download of a new U2 record, I suspect we'd have heard by now if drivers were struggling with Marketplace. McFarland says it was the biggest over-the-air update in auto industry history.
The app is a big deal not because GM expects doughnut sales and waistlines to grow dramatically, but because of other services Marketplace offers now and will add. Starbucks will be available soon, and you can already get directions to Shell or ExxonMobil stations. The app can automatically provide directions to your preferred fuel brand when you get a "low fuel" alert.
The next step comes when gas stations equip their pumps so you can pay for gas and get loyalty discounts without without putting your credit card in the pump.
"It becomes much more useful when you can pay for gas," Fisher said. "The potential convenience will improve over time."
A Priceline app checks rates and gets directions to nearby hotels. You can only use that when the car is stationary, because the info on price and room is too much to process in a glance while driving.
GM is working on voice activation for Marketplace. That, and quicker loading times, could make the app irreplaceable. Picture yourself at the end of a long day's drive: "Find me hotel rooms and rates in Hattiesburg, Miss. Reserve a table at TGI Fridays."
Yes, you can make reservations at TGI Fridays. Who knew? If that, Red Lobster, Dunkin' and Starbucks aren't enough – what are you, the queen of England? – more options are coming. McFarland said local independent businesses will be able to get in on the action with internet aggregators.
GM expects the number of vehicles with Marketplace to reach 4 million this year. Owners aren't charged for data they use in Marketplace. Updates and new features will come over the air, some announced, some as surprises that owners will discover for themselves.
"We want to offer customers new features and software advances at the same rate as consumer electronics," McFarland said.
About The Writer
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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