The auto giant’s permanent presence in Herzliya gives it a leg up on Israeli-engineered advances in sensing, voice and touch technology, infotainment and robotics.
By David Halevi
Many people are familiar with major Israeli corporate "multinationals" like Teva Pharmaceuticals. However, dozens of multinationals, many from the United States, have set up shop in Israel. General Motors, one of the world’s largest automakers, not only has an R&D facility in Israel, but an entire corporate structure in Herzliya.
You need that kind of structure in the car business, says GM Israel site director Gil Golan. "There are so many parts to a modern car that need to be engineered in order to ensure that everything works properly," he says. "It’s far more complicated than with Internet companies, for example, where they produce a product or technology that can be ‘plugged in’ to a website or another product. We found that we’re far more successful if we put the full resources of GM at the service of the local subsidiary."
The mission of GM Israel is to develop the technologies that will make the car of tomorrow the best vehicle ever built.
"Israel has many good scientists and engineers, and we want to benefit from the activity here," says Golan, who adds that the staff in Israel picks up new information and ideas much faster than employees at other GM development centers worldwide. "In most places, it takes staff over a year, sometimes two or three, to become adept at what we are doing and how we need them to help. In Israel, it took no more than eight months until the staff was ready to start producing for the company."
Golan should know. Although he was born and raised in Israel and attended the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, he worked for GM in the United States for over a decade, with a lengthy stint as its director of R&D global strategy. He led GM’s effort to seek out the world’s top tech people and engineers, establishing GM facilities in several countries in the Far East.
"We had been scouring sites for development centers in the early part of this decade, and Israel came up on our radar screen," as it did for many other multinationals that have opened facilities here. GM opened its Israel site in 2005 and now has several dozen engineers and corporate officials employed there, but Golan expects about 200 people – mostly engineers – to be on board by the end of 2013.
Lots of cool stuff under the hood
GM Israel is developing technology in five areas, says Golan: advanced sensing and vision systems; human interface systems that adapt voice and touch technology for autos; wireless enabling, allowing a vehicle’s systems to use networks to ensure constant communication; infotainment; and vehicle control and robotics, with the Israeli group working directly with GM tech groups in Michigan on the world’s most advanced robots for driverless navigation.
While the company’s engineers and scientists are hard at work developing these systems, GM has not been averse to supporting Israeli companies that have unusually good technology. One of two branches of GM’s $100 million venture capital fund is located in Israel (the other is in Silicon Valley). Its first investment, $5 million at the beginning of 2011, was in Israeli startup Powermat, which makes wireless charging mats for cell phones and other electronic devices. GM plans to include the mats in vehicles as soon as 2012, allowing drivers to easily recharge their handheld devices while on the road.
"Most American corporations get involved with foreign markets via an acquisition or partnership," says Golan. "But in some markets, like Israel, there is so much going on that we can take advantage of, that it makes sense to establish a more permanent presence, via our corporate presence. We see Israel as a place where GM can grow strategically."