The Truth About Cars » OnStar The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:59:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » OnStar New With Most 2014 GM Vehicles: Feds, Spies, And Criminals As Standard Equipment Thu, 06 Jun 2013 13:32:01 +0000


Remote unlocking of your car’s doors via your smartphone , activating horn and lights and remote start, previously part of GM’s paid OnStar service, is becoming a standard feature, GM says.  Buy the car, download the app, and the car can be remote-controlled via your smartphone for five years, whether you pay for OnStar, or not. “Thirty-six 2014 model year GM vehicles are compatible with the RemoteLink mobile app,” says GM in a press release, meaning that most of GM’s new cars are permanently on-line, can be reached, tracked, can reveal their locations, OnStar, or not, ignition on, or not.

At the same time, says Time Magazine,  “Law-enforcement officials from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., are again sounding an alarm over mobile-phone thefts, demanding that the wireless industry, resellers and lawmakers take new steps to quash the thriving black market for boosted devices.” According to the story, “Cell-phone theft in major cities has become a national crime epidemic, like the car-stereo crime wave of the 1990s. In San Francisco, about half of all robberies now involve mobile phones, and in New York City there was a 40% increase in mobile thefts in 2012. One recent Harris poll found that nearly 10% of cellular users said their phone had been stolen at one point.”

Cell phone theft is estimated to cost consumers $30 billion a year. Imagine the cost, when a car is attached to that shiny new phone.Data theft is much more rampant, and it’s your government that does the wholesale stealing.

A report in The Guardian revealed “that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

Such information is “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” a senior administration official told Reuters. Says the wire:

“The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama’s handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists’ calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.”


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A day later, the Washington Post revealed  that the U.S. Government can pull your data “directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple,” and has been doing so for years. If those good folks cooperate with the Feds, imagine the willingness of people who still are partially owned, and very much controlled by the U.S. Government.

OnStar data are transmitted via wireless data, which is wide open to the government and criminals alike.

Quite possibly, the only defense is to take the battery out of phone and car.

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Forget Starbucks – It’s Carbucks! Mon, 25 Feb 2013 12:54:08 +0000

Check her rear

Not only will GM’s OnStar switch from the allegedly ultra-reliable and most dense Verizon network to the allegedly not-so reliable and not-so-dense AT &T network, as Reuters reports. It will also “make each of its cars an Internet hotspot with a high-speed broadband connection,” as Automotive News has it.

GM will start using AT&T in its 2015 models, going on sale in mid-2014. The 4G LTE connection will provide higher bandwidth services, which are a bit murky at the moment. Automotive News talks about “streaming video for backseat passengers and updating the navigation system remotely,” whereas Reuters sees the car going the other way, “wirelessly sending customers alerts about possible engine problems or sending data or even video from a car to the owner’s mobile device to show what’s going on next to the vehicle in case of any problems.”

So once two-way communication is established, you can shout “take your effing finger off my effing car!!!” right from the privacy of your home. But the biggest deal is that you can use your car as a hotspot, says Automotive News. No more hanging out in front of Starbucks, instead, people will hang out in front of your car. Of course, you could use the 4G LTE connection of your phone and get it over with – but that would be too simple, no? The interesting part is, speaking of carbucks: How much will it cost? Neither AN nor Reuters could find out. And this being AT&T: What in-car cap are we talking about? So many questions.

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OnStar Glitch Causes GM To Halt Sales Of Certain Models Sat, 08 Sep 2012 17:18:56 +0000

A software glitch in the OnStar system caused GM to halt sales of certain models, including the brand-new Cadillac ATS.

Some 60,000 vehicles were affected by the glitch, which prevents OnStar’s crash notification system from notifying their call center in certain collisions that don’t trigger the airbags. Among the cars affected are the 2013 Chevrolet Equinox, Cruze and Volt, the Cadillac XTS and ATS, the 2012 Cadillac SRX , the Buick Verano and the GMC Terrain.

According to Automotive News, GM sent a memo to dealers telling them to “stop the delivery” of affected vehicles, and that the issue would be cleared by late September. Most vehicles can be fixed via a remote software flash, however some cars require a manual upgrade performed at the dealer.

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Pimp Your Ride. Or: OnStar Allows Perfect Strangers To Open Your Car With Their Cell Phones Tue, 17 Jul 2012 15:58:44 +0000

Need some extra money? Want to work from home? Easy: Sell her to perfect strangers, by the hour. You will receive assistance in pimping her as long as she’s an OnStar-equipped Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, or Cadillac.  

According to a GM release, GM OnStar subscribers can now rent out their idle vehicles through the RelayRides marketplace, and “potentially earn hundreds of dollars a month to offset the cost of owning a vehicle.”

You don’t even need to see the john renter face to face, because “renters can unlock reserved OnStar-enabled cars simply by using their smart phones” says the press release.


“Through OnStar’s proprietary API, RelayRides developers were given access to key vehicle-centric features such as location and remote door lock and unlock. This means renters can unlock the doors with their smart phone or by replying to a text message.”

I’d rather sell my soul for a few hundred bucks.

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2014 Chevrolet SS Performance – Great Car, Awful Name. Cadillac ELR Also Coming Wed, 25 Apr 2012 17:35:59 +0000

Technology blogger Christopher Price has found out that two all-new 2014 models from GM are coming, thanks to doing some digging around OnStar’s website.

Price found out that 2014 will bring about a Cadillac ELR, the long rumored Cadillac version of the Chevrolet Volt. Chevrolet will also apparently get a car dubbed the “SS Performance”, supposedly the new sports sedan based on the Holden Commodore. The new RWD Zeta sedan should be a wonderful car, but surely GM could have come up with a better name than “SS Performance”. Wouldn’t “Caprice” suffice?

Onstar Chevrolet SS. Photo courtesy Christopher Price. onstarelr


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This Is The Chevy Volt’s Post-Crash Safety Protocol Wed, 30 Nov 2011 22:18:19 +0000

TTAC has received the following protocol, developed by GM in the wake of the June Volt fire at a NHTSA facility in Wisconsin, from a GM source and has confirmed its legitimacy with a second GM source. Though the procedure may be refined based on the findings of NHTSA’s latest round of tests, it gives a good picture of what GM currently does to ensure the safety of Volt driver and passengers as well as rescue workers, towing company workers and salvage yards. And, I have to say, it puts some of my fears about this safety scare to rest. It hadn’t occurred to me that GM’s Onstar system could provide opportunities to respond to crashes in real time, and apparently the system provides a wide variety of data with which GM’s “corporate SWAT team” can tailor its response to any Volt crash event. Hit the jump for the full procedure.

  • Chevy Volt sends Onstar message of just occurred crash event.
  • Onstar team notified of Volt crash and immediately implements standard crash protocol to assist vehicle operator
  • Onstar immediately pulls key crash criteria from crash notification, i.e. vehicle speed, vehicles conditions (rollover), etc
  • Onstar team notifies Volt Battery Team Leader of crash event including key vehicle conditions
  • Volt Battery team leader works with Onstar to ping Volt and check additional data if appropriate (higher severity crash events, battery data, etc)
  • Volt Battery team Leader determines if high crash severity standards met for depowering or if there is any question about battery severity level.  If yes to either, Battery team representative is sent to crash site
  • Volt Battery team works with Volt advisor to contact Vehicle Owner and/or determine vehicle location
  • Volt Battery representative obtains approval from owner and then proceeds to investigate the crashed Volt and depowers battery if deemed necessary
  • Post Crash Volt stable and ready for disposition
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Rent Out Your Car Via Onstar Wed, 05 Oct 2011 23:21:10 +0000

Onstar may have been pressured by privacy activists into dropping changes to its terms of service, but the telematics service is still betting that people want to be more connected than ever. So much so that it’s going offer a service allowing you to rent your car out to strangers.

A GM press release explains

RelayRides allows vehicle owners to choose to rent out their idle vehicles, with the owner controlling the rates and availability of the car. RelayRides provides an online marketplace and a $1 million insurance policy to make the transaction safe and convenient.

Through innovative technology integration, RelayRides will leverage OnStar to allow RelayRides borrowers to unlock GM cars with their mobile phones. For vehicles that are not OnStar enabled, RelayRides must install a small device in the car to provide convenient access to borrowers. The integration makes all eligible OnStar vehicles immediately “RelayRides ready” without having to install additional hardware…

RelayRides will leverage OnStar technology through a mobile application to allow customers to check for available vehicles, make a online reservation online as well as check future reservations, locate their reserved vehicle via GPS and lock and unlock the vehicle, all through their smart phone.

And GM isn’t just mating its Onstar technology to the “peer-to-peer” car sharing program (which is still only available in San Francisco and Boston), its VC arm GM Ventures “is in advanced discussions with RelayRides about an investment in the company as part of GM’s overall commitment to addressing urban mobility issues.” Car sharing programs have become a big trend in the automotive industry, with Daimler, BMW, Toyota and others jumping on the bandwagon in some form or other. But as might be expected from the company that brought us the Volt, rather than surf the trend, GM is going one step further by leading the industry into the peer-to-peer rental space. And as with all of these investments, it’s tough to see how this makes sense in the long term. In the short term though, at least this might “get butts into seats,” something GM execs say is the key to overcoming what they call “outdated perceptions” of GM products.

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GM Drops Proposed OnStar Policy Changes Tue, 27 Sep 2011 17:15:36 +0000

Under attack from privacy advocates and US Senators, Onstar will be dropping plans to automatically track vehicles that are not subscribed to its service, and will make post-cancellation tracking an opt-in option, rather than opt-out. A GM statement reads:

DETROIT – OnStar announced today it is reversing its proposed Terms and Conditions policy changes and will not keep a data connection to customers’ vehicles after the OnStar service is canceled.

OnStar recently sent e-mails to customers telling them that effective Dec. 1, their service would change so that data from a customer vehicle would continue to be transmitted to OnStar after service was canceled – unless the customer asked for it to be shut off.

“We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers,” OnStar President Linda Marshall said. “This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers’ hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our more than 6 million customers.”

If OnStar ever offers the option of a data connection after cancellation, it would only be when a customer opted-in, Marshall said. And then OnStar would honor customers’ preferences about how data from that connection is treated.

Maintaining the data connection would have allowed OnStar to provide former customers with urgent information about natural disasters and recalls affecting their vehicles even after canceling their service. It also would have helped in planning future services, Marshall said.

“We regret any confusion or concern we may have caused,” Marshall said.

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Senators Franken And Coons Question OnStar Over New Policies Sun, 25 Sep 2011 18:54:29 +0000

Editor’s note: When I wrote about OnStar’s latest round of privacy concerns, I didn’t realize that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law had voiced his own concerns in a letter published just the day before. Here is the letter, as published at Senator Franken’s website. OnStar has already said it will respond to specifically to the concerns of Senators Franken and Coons.

Ms. Linda Marshall, President
OnStar Corporation
400 Renaissance Center
Detroit, MI 48265

Dear Ms. Marshall:

We are writing to express our serious concern with OnStar’s announcement earlier this week that it would continue to track the GPS locations of its customers’ vehicles even if those customers have affirmatively ended their contractual plans with OnStar.  In this email announcement, OnStar informs its current and former subscribers that it reserves the right to track their locations “for any purpose, at any time.”  It appears that the only way to stop this tracking is to actually call OnStar and request that the data connection between OnStar and the vehicle be terminated; this service is not available online.  OnStar further reserves the right to share or sell location data with “credit card processors,” “data management companies,” OnStar’s “affiliates,” or “any third party” provided that OnStar is satisfied that the data cannot be traced back to individual customers.  See OnStar, Privacy Statement: Effective as of December 2011.  In a nutshell, OnStar is telling its current and former customers that it can track their location anywhere, anytime—even if they cancel their subscriptions—and then give or sell that information to anyone as long as OnStar deems it safe to do so.

OnStar’s actions appear to violate basic principles of privacy and fairness for OnStar’s approximately six million customers—especially for those customers who have already ended their relationships with your company.  OnStar’s assurances that it will protect its customers by “anonymizing” precise GPS records of their location are undermined by a broad body of research showing that it is extraordinarily difficult to successfully anonymize highly personal data like location.  See generally Paul Ohm, Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization, 5 UCLA Law Review 1701 (2010) and Marco Gruteser and Baik Hoh, On the Anonymity of Periodic Location Samples, in Second International Conference on Security in Pervasive Computing, Boppard, Germany (2005) at 179-192.  If a data set shows the exact location where a car starts every morning, the roads that car travels on its morning commute, the office where it is parked during business hours, and the schools where it stops on its way home, it is unnecessary for that data set to include a name or license plate for it to be connected to an individual and his or her family.

We urge you to reconsider these decisions.  We also urge you to better inform your customers of their ramifications.  To that end, we request that you provide answers to the following questions:

1.      Does OnStar believe that its actions comply with federal law?
2.      Will OnStar allow its customers to deactivate their data connections online?
3.      If a customer deactivates their data connection, will OnStar delete the existing location information they have gathered for that customer?  Or does OnStar reserve the right to store and sell that information regardless of deactivation?
4.      Has OnStar ever suffered a breach of its customers’ location data?
5.      Has OnStar ever suffered a breach of any of its customers’ private information?
6.      How will OnStar protect non-anonymized data on its servers in light of recent breaches at major institutions like Citibank, Sony and the International Monetary Fund?
7.      How exactly will OnStar anonymize its location data?
8.      Will OnStar seek its customers’ consent before sharing or selling their location data to third parties?  Does OnStar believe it is legally required to do so?
9.      Will OnStar inform its customers of the entities to whom it sells location data?
10.  Has OnStar already disclosed or sold any of its customers’ location data with third parties?  Which third parties?
11.  Will OnStar agree to stop the tracking, sharing, and sale of location data for customers that have ended their subscriptions to OnStar services?

We believe that OnStar’s actions underscore the urgent need for prompt congressional action to enact privacy laws that protect private, sensitive information like location.  In the meantime, we believe that it is the responsibility of corporate citizens like OnStar to take every step possible to safeguard the privacy of their customers.

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.


Al Franken                                                                                          Christopher A. Coons
Chairman, Subcommittee on                                                               United States Senator
Privacy, Technology and the Law

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Onstar Responds To Privacy Concerns. Again. Still. Sat, 24 Sep 2011 16:46:41 +0000

Concerns over privacy have haunted GM’s OnStar business for as long as it’s been around, and responses like this video have become something of an annual routine for OnStar’s executives. The latest round of furor involves changes to OnStar’s policies, which the New York Times describes thusly

The first regards what happens when a customer cancels the service. Until now, when OnStar service stopped, so did the vehicle’s two-way communications system. As of Dec. 1, however, that will not necessarily be the case. Vehicles of owners who no longer subscribe could still be monitored via the system’s still-active two-way cellular link.

The second policy change concerns the potential use of the data collected by OnStar, which includes information like the vehicle’s speed and location, current odometer reading, driver seat-belt use and air-bag deployment. Under the new terms, OnStar reserves the right to share that information with other companies and organizations, even data culled from motorists who no longer subscribe to the service but who have left the two-way communications connection open.

Of course, OnStar says GM customers can opt out of the service, but it’s making the case that by only sharing anonymous data, it can limit meaningful privacy concerns. But OnStar doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as it continues to sell Americans on the notion that security is worth sacrificing some sense of privacy for, it will find itself increasingly pulled into a national debate.

OnStar’s execs are clearly walking a line here, as there’s no doubt OnStar-provided data is used in a number of ways that they argue is intended to benefit the customer. Monitoring usage patterns in the Chevy Volt is one example. Allowing vehicle owners to spy on their kids and spouses is another. But by pushing these services, OnStar finds itself at the cutting edge of a profound national debate on the balance between privacy and security that has been simmering just below the national consciousness in the decade since 9/11.

OnStar is clearly aligning itself with the side of security, not only offering nanny services to its users, but now giving them nanny powers over people who use their cars as well. In the short term, this has been a strong play: history shows that OnStar has picked the winning side in the debate, as most security/privacy tradefoffs since 9/11 have been decided in favor of security. But as measures like pay-per-mile vehicle tracking gain political momentum (the talk in DC is that government tracking of every vehicle is “unavoidable” in the middle-to-long-term), a backlash may well be brewing.

The problem with picking any one side of a fundamental political tradeoff is that eventually your side overreaches, sparking a backlash. When pay-per-mile taxation becomes a serious policy proposal, a political near-inevitability in the next ten years, all of the slippery concessions to security-over-privacy that led up to government tracking of every vehicle in America will be seen in a very different light. OnStar (and its analogues, which are spreading throughout the industry) will clearly be identified as a poster boy for the tradeoff between privacy and security, and faced with mandatory government tracking, it’s hard to see Americans remaining in love with the idea of voluntary tracking. Already the backlash is brewing, and public responses to privacy concerns will be a fact of life for firms like OnStar. But then, that’s just a part of the cost of doing business when you’re selling services that prey on paranoia, and asks customers to trust your benevolent gaze more than the often-terrifying randomness of the universe.

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Want To Spy On The Kids/Spouse? Onstar Has The Answer! Mon, 01 Aug 2011 19:11:26 +0000 GM’s Onstar division has long raised privacy concerns among the professionally paranoid, but now it’s putting all that observational power into the hands of consumers, with a pilot program called “Family Link.”  Described in GM’s presser as “a new optional service that will explore ways subscribers can stay connected to their loved ones,” the service includes

  • Vehicle Locate: The subscriber can log on to the Family Link website to view a map with the vehicle’s exact location at any time.
  • Vehicle Location Alert: Subscribers can set up email or text message notifications to let them know the location of their loved one’s vehicle. They can choose the day, time and frequency of the alerts.

But that’s not all: if the pilot proves that consumers are willing to pay for the right to surveil their loved ones,

Future considerations for the pilot include Speed Alert, Boundary Alert and Arrival/Departure Alert.

Forget Big Brother… with this system, you can be Big Daddy, in the center of your own little family-sized panopticon. From making sure the kids stay out of trouble (“Say, son, what were you doing in downtown Detroit last night?”) to checking up on your loving spouse (“Honey, why did you say you were going to the gym, when you just parked for an hour at the Slee-Zee Snooze Motel?”), it’s how today’s on-the-go families foster an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. Because why let the government have all the voyeuristic fun?

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Piston Slap: Push On Steepstakes, Take In Financial Burden? Mon, 04 Apr 2011 16:33:48 +0000

Steve writes:

Hi Sajeev,

For those of us who have entered the OnStar “Push On” contest that is giving away 10 GM vehicles of the winner’s choice and who feel lucky (yeah, right), we have a potential problem.  You get a GM vehicle of your choice and $25K to cover taxes, delivery, dealer prep, added dealer markup (in the spirit of the GTO, G8, Camaro…don’t put it past them), etc.

Here are the choices and my first thoughts:

  • Aveo – nope, is anyone that dumb? Even GM wouldn’t let you select this!
  • Cruze – nah.
  • HHR – no, no, no.
  • Malibu – already own one.
  • Impala – meh, no more SS. (that’s because LS4-FTW! – Sajeev)
  • Camaro SS – rented one; like driving an eff’n WWII pillbox, cripe!
  • Camaro SS convertible – maybe, but see above with top up, a bitch in the winter with the top down.
  • Corvette GS – maybe, but still have a teen on the insurance.
  • Corvette Z06 – sweet, but probably rides too hard and see above.
  • Corvette ZR1 – awesome, but I already get too many tickets; now if it came with stealth cloaking and active countermeasures.
  • Volt – not available in the contest.
  • Colorado/Canyon – bleah.
  • Silverado/Sierra – yeah, a 3500 crew cab dually…not!
  • Equinox/Terrain – why?
  • Traverse/Acadia/Enclave – nope, kids are grown.
  • Tahoe/Yukon/Escalade – maybe, but would rather have a car than a truck.
  • Suburban/Yukon XL/Escalade ESV – too big for the garage.
  • Avalanche/Escalade EXT – see Suburban, ugly.
  • Regal turbo – maybe, but would rather have a GS.
  • Regal GS – definite maybe, its a 2012 model so might not be an option.
  • Lacrosse – close but kind of boring for a contest winner selection.
  • Lucerne – not that old yet.
  • CTS – maybe a wagon.
  • CTS-V – probably at the top of the list.
  • STS – would have been near the top of the list, but no more V model, V8 or Magna Ride Suspension for 2011, grrr.
  • DTS – too big, not that old yet.
  • SRX – have the previous model and like it better.

So if you pick the ZR1 it is ~ $120K + $25 = $145K that you have to pay taxes on.  If you are in a 30% bracket (state + federal) that’s a whopping $43.5K in taxes which means you are out $18.5K + delivery + prep + license fees + insurance => say $25K.  Not bad for a ZR1 but not “free”.  So do you pick the ZR1, sell it and get ~ $100K net?

Or pick something else and keep it?  Which of the above list? Camaro SS? Regal GS? CTS-V? Escalade?  CTS-V at ~ $65K + $25K = $90K => $27K in taxes; this might be the optimum for a car to keep; but what color? manual or automatic? coupe, sedan or wagon?  10 lucky folks are going to have this problem.  What would you select?

Sajeev answers:

I know a thing or two about getting a ZR1 for cheap and the market for GM’s flagship in general. Considering there are still leftover 2010s that are being sold for $10+k below sticker by dealerships desperate to lower their “floor plan” (inventory) payments, you might be looking at more a profit of low-90s if you want to make a quick sale from a dealer/auction and be done with it.  The market is super soft, but that OnStar promotion is still the best bang for the buck.

And that’s what I’d do, if you were me and I was you. The money earned can be used for more important things: teenager’s college, house upgrades, investment portfolio, travel and whatever else floats your boat. And that’s because these (depreciating) vehicles aren’t replacing your current rides, including your Malibu/SRX. At least that’s what it sounds like from the (kinda harsh) tone of your letter. And that’s totally cool.

While GM “bashing” from the most loyal supporters (paging Buickman, where are you?) is not a foreign concept here at TTAC, you don’t fit that mold. It’s simply all about the money, honey.

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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OnStar, Now Available As An Out Of The Box Experience Wed, 05 Jan 2011 18:15:58 +0000

Dying to have OnStar in our car, but don’t want to buy a GM car? No problem! At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, GM unveiled an add-OnStar that fits (nearly) any car.

It comes as a retail, boxed version of an OnStar-equipped rearview mirror, providing the joys of OnStar (crash response, turn-by-turn navigation, stolen vehicle location assistance, emergency and roadside services and hands-free calling) to the less fortunate who can’t call a GM product their own.

According to ZDNet, GM thinks this is “a bold move.”  ZDNet predicts that the boxed mirror “will no doubt irritate rivals like Ford, Lincoln, Kia, Toyota, Lexus and Audi, which all have similar platforms deployed or in the works.”

The mirror will be available in the U.S. in spring 2011 for $299. Installation will run another hundred bucks. Service plans for non-GM vehicles will start at $18.95 per month, or $199 per year.  GM thinks that the OnStar mirror will work on 99 percent of the top 20 selling non-GM vehicles made during the last 10 years.

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Onstar Explores The Line Between Convenience And Distraction Thu, 09 Sep 2010 17:35:14 +0000

The never-ending tension between the desire to give consumers more choices of in-car gizmos and the need to halt the advance of distracted driving took another confused twist this week, as Onstar announced that it is testing new features that could allow drivers to listen to text messages and update their Facebook status from behind the wheel. According to the DetN, the technology would read incoming text messages or a Facebook news feed to the driver, and could even allow the driver to update their own Facebook status verbally. Needless to say, GM and Onstar are hyping the updates as ways to keep up with Ford’s SYNC on the entertainment front, and because the features are all hands-free, they’re safe… right?

Of course not. Hands-free technology has yet to be proven to be safer than using a handheld cell phone in the car. Which, until further studies are done, essentially means that hands-free cellular communication is about as safe as driving after a few drinks. Not that Onstar is bringing it up, telling the press that

OnStar has always operated on the premise that while the possibilities of technological innovation are endless, the company will not implement a new service simply because it’s technically feasible, it has to be the right thing to do for the customer. All of our technologies are rigorously evaluated prior to launch.

Of course “doing the right thing for the consumer” isn’t always easy to quantify. Should GM and Onstar indulge the narcissistic tendencies of the Facebook addicted by allowing them to update their status while taking their life into their hands on the road, or does “doing the right thing” imply taking a bit more responsibility? After all, GM admits that the use rate for Bluetooth sync capability is still quite low, suggesting that demand for these tech toys isn’t even all that high.

An analysis of random, anonymous data collected from thousands of vehicles indicates only 45 percent of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac owners are pairing their cellular phones to a vehicle’s Bluetooth system, raising concerns that customers are unaware of the feature in their vehicle or believe connecting to be too difficult a process.

Or, subscribers might (rightly) understand that hands-free cell phone use while driving is dangerous and refuse to sync their phones. But that perspective doesn’t exactly validate Onstar’s new entertainment-focused direction, so it must not be the case. Isn’t that right, Onstar VP Chris Preuss?

There’s no question that cellular device use in the vehicle is and will continue to be one of the biggest safety challenges facing society. Technology will play a key role in mitigating this impact, but we cannot over-assume engagement just because we provide the capability. This education and awareness campaign is designed to encourage use of hands-free technology because we take driver distraction and safety very seriously.

Sorry, wrong answer. As tough as it is to fathom for someone in the driver distraction business, the only way to keep drivers truly safe is to tell them not to talk on the phone, update their Facebook status or otherwise distract themselves while driving. Period. But instead of sending that message, GM is setting up a new website to educate Onstar subscribers about just how easy it is to sync their phones to their cars. Because people should be encouraged to use communication technology they don’t understand while driving several tons of metal at high speeds.

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Volt-Google Android Cooperation Presages Next-Gen Onstar System Tue, 18 May 2010 16:37:32 +0000

GM’s OnStar division is preparing for a big push into new info-tainment and connectivity services, and it’s launching the effort at Google’s I/O conference starting tomorrow. First up is a new Google-maps-based navigation feature for Android phones running the Chevy Volt mobile app, featured in the video above [presser here]. Though this new navigation system won’t be available at launch, but will emerge in a 2.0 version of the Volt mobile app, it hints at a new direction for OnStar, which traditionally markets itself as a safety feature. A senior (anonymous, sorry) source at GM took a moment to explain where this is all heading….

In essence, OnStar is being developed to be “seamless” with mobile smartphones, and the Volt is the guinea pig for this next generation of capabilities. In addition to the recently-added navigation features, the Volt mobile app will be able to

  • Charge status display – plugged in or not and voltage (120V or 240V)
  • Flexibility to “Charge Now” or schedule charge timing
  • Display percentage of battery charge level, electric and total ranges
  • Ability to manually set grid-friendly charge mode for off-peak times when electricity rates are lowest
  • Send text or email notifications for charge reminders, interruptions and full charge
  • Display miles per gallon, electric only miles, and odometer readings
  • Shows miles per gallon, EV miles and miles driven for last trip and lifetime
  • Remotely start the vehicle to pre-condition the interior temperature

Because OnStar can securely communicate with vehicle controls, GM believes that integrating mobile phones creates “almost no end to the cool things we can do in this space.” And that means eventually migrating these capabilities to other vehicles besides the Volt. Our source explains:

We can do this because Volt has the next-gen hardware for OnStar. That hardware goes to all GM products for 2011 model year…so of course, we’d be able to proliferate the approach.

Of course, “some infrastructure issues” are still standing in the way of an official announcement, but we’re told to expect a “re-launch” of the OnStar brand “within the next couple of months.” OnStar’s “killer app… a human being who actually thinks and acts on the other end of the blue button” will remain the centerpiece of the brand, but building infotainment and mobile integration into the next-generation of OnStar as a compliment to traditional safety-oriented features is seen as the best way to grow the brand.

And though the navigation feature that will be highlighted this week is available on Android phones only, GM isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. Apple and RIM (Blackberry) will be fully integrated as well, and a new Human Machine Interface (HMI) would not require a partnership as Android is free and open to developers. GM is apparently in talks with several outfits to develop an HMI architecture that is “truly open.”

Onstar has always been a bit of an odd duck: it’s a tech toy for people who don’t have or like tech toys. The simple function and human interaction make it ideal for the safety-conscious yet tech-unsavvy demographic… in other words, people who aren’t married to a cell phone. But as cell phones with features like navigation and roadside assistance become increasingly common, even among non-early-adopters, OnStar’s traditional mission (peace of mind) is becoming less relevant. And unlike Ford’s SYNC system, OnStar hasn’t targeted the tech-for-tech’s-sake crowd with entertainment features and phone-car integration. If the next-generation of OnStar can blend its traditional strengths with the kinds of features that allegedly brings younger buyers into SYNC with Ford, GM will be making one of many necessary steps it needs to around perceptions of its business.

After all, mobile phone culture is already leaving quite the impact on car marketing.

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Wild Ass Rumor Of The Day: GM And Google Discussing Onstar-Android Tie-Up Wed, 12 May 2010 22:47:01 +0000
The Wall Street Journal [sub] reports that GM and Google are discussing new ways to connect the internet giant’s Android mobile phone operating system with GM’s Onstar system. OnStar’s president Chris Preuss has hinted that “big news” is coming next week, spurring speculation about the features that a partnership with Google could yield for Onstar. If such a plan is in the works, GM’s timing is quite good. Ford had previously enjoyed an exclusive license to Microsoft’s technology which underpins its Sync system, but that agreement recently expired, prompting deals between Microsoft and automakers like Fiat and-Hyundai-Kia. By becoming the first US-market OEM to partner with Google, GM could enjoy an advantage in Detroit’s burgeoning technology wars… at least until distracted driving becomes a capital crime.

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Have You Really Thought This Through Edition: Onstar To Invade China Mon, 02 Nov 2009 12:43:50 +0000

Nannification makes a great leap forward: OnStar services will be activated and fully operational in China in December 2009 on some Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet vehicles, PRNewswire reports. The system will be operated by OnStar Telematics Company Limited, a joint venture between  GM and SAIC. According to the blurb, “this is OnStar’s first venture outside of North America in its 11-year history.”

Shanghai GM has plans to make OnStar available on all of its products sold in China, Gasgoo says. OnStar will supervise car and driver of Chinese Cadillacs first, then move to Buick and finally to Chevrolet.

The offer is the same as stateside: First year free, then you pay. The services supplied also mirror those in the US.

When it becomes known that SAIC (and possibly GM USA) can track in real time the whereabouts of its customers, including visits to second wives, saunas, KTVs and other recreational establishments, sales of GM products in security-conscious China should drop a lot.

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