Onstar Scares Edmunds

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Edmunds Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer apparently shares our ambivalence about GM’s in-car nanny, Onstar. And not for paranoid reasons either. He explains:

See, I like to think of myself as relatively self-sufficient. Sure, I’ll ask for help but I have to really need it first. However, on a semi-regular basis, when I’m in an OnStar-equipped car I find myself unintentionally activating the system, which in turn causes tremendous guilt because I feel I’m bothering an OnStar employee who could be helping another driver, maybe even someone with a true emergency.

Brauer goes on to recount a few incidents which led to his conclusion that Onstar’s benefits don’t outweigh its annoyances.

I hit the button outside my house, asked for directions to the nearest Wells Fargo ATM, and was directed right past a nearby Wells Fargo bank (with two ATMs) to a Ralph’s grocery store a few miles away. I thanked OnStar, hung up, and drove back to the bank to make a withdrawal.

While I was disappointed in OnStar’s knowledge of my local ATMs, I was far more troubled by the concept of bothering another human just to get driving directions (insert your ” the difference between men and women” joke here). My overriding feeling after hanging up?

“Oh…um…sorry to bother you…disembodied OnStar voice. Hope I didn’t interrupt any truly important calls.”

And that last line seems to define Brauer’s experience with Onstar.

My next OnStar experience came in a Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, circa 2003. I was at our test track making slalom runs, which as you might guess involved a lot of high G, back-and-forth activity. About halfway through my third run I heard the OnStar tone and then a female voice asking me if I was okay. Apparently the slalom run agitated the car’s stability sensors, which then initiated a call to OnStar to see if the car had crashed.

“Oh…um…sorry to bother you…disembodied OnStar voice. Hope I didn’t interrupt any truly important calls.”

There are more of these irritating interludes, but what’s most interesting is the realization Brauer comes to:

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the safety and security services it offers. It is easily the best solution to a host of problems, such as a real emergency situation that incapacitates the driver, or when a GM vehicle is stolen.

But when I drive a GM car I always feel like I’m no the verge of activating OnStar, and short of being in a serious accident I simply don’t want to bother anyone.

Which is why God invented cellular telephones. And Brauer is absolutely right. Hating on Onstar for potential governmental big-brotherism misses the point. Big Brother isn’t objectionable because of “his” specific political leanings or because we may or may not have something to hide. Rather the Orwellian phrase is appropriate because it speaks to the stifling environment of omnipresent surveillance. Whether you do have something to hide or you simply don’t want to bother anyone, the reality of living with a disembodied voice playing nanny wherever you go is a kind of apolitical totalitarianism of our own making.

To which I’d add one more point: Brauer finds Onstar annoying because he sees himself as being “relatively self-sufficient.” Those who are not bothered by the incidents he describes see them as the price one pays for what they perceive to be total security. But that mindset is, in itself, an abdication of self-sufficiency. Neither Onstar nor any other system can promise true security in a random, dangerous world. What it does offer is the option of abandoning the alert, aware, defensive posture that every motorist should embody when taking to the road. And it can be a distraction. Unfortunately, safety (or the perception thereof) is rapidly becoming a commodity… and nobody seems to be thinking of the non-monetary price.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Ihatetrees Ihatetrees on Oct 23, 2009
    Unfortunately, safety (or the perception thereof) is rapidly becoming a commodity… and nobody seems to be thinking of the non-monetary price. Along the same line, computer security guru Bruce Schneier states, "Security is a process, not a product." Pch101: But many cars, GM and otherwise, now have black box type recorders that are being used for similar reasons. Given their proprietary nature, black box security is an unknown. Worse, if these boxes are going to be used against people, they had better be properly secured against tampering. (And before this is dismissed as paranoia, consider the incentive for speeders to hack these boxes as a tool for proving innocence once the state start using them to prove guilt.) And good luck preventing hacks to wiping the data completely... Will it be a crime to wipe the data on a vehicle you own???
  • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Oct 26, 2009
    Patapon : An analogy: Would you disable your anti-virus because it slows down your computer or takes a long time to scan? Maybe protecting yourself against that one really nasty virus that wipes out all of your family photos and business documents is worth that 1300hrs of scan time (assuming 1 full scan takes 5 hrs, scanning once per week, for 5 years). Yes, I would. I haven't used any anti-virus in seven years, and I've never been infected because I don't visit sketchy sites or run sketchy programs. My files are backed up on an external hard drive and on a second computer. If the only thing you rely on to protect your files is an anti-virus program, you probably don't know how common hard drive failure is. I was once on the receiving end of a severe collision. It took three hours from the time of the accident for them to arrive, cut me out of the vehicle, and get me to the hospital. Despite that, I would not buy a vehicle with OnStar.
  • Lichtronamo Watch as the non-us based automakers shift more production to Mexico in the future.
  • 28-Cars-Later " Electrek recently dug around in Tesla’s online parts catalog and found that the windshield costs a whopping $1,900 to replace.To be fair, that’s around what a Mercedes S-Class or Rivian windshield costs, but the Tesla’s glass is unique because of its shape. It’s also worth noting that most insurance plans have glass replacement options that can make the repair a low- or zero-cost issue. "Now I understand why my insurance is so high despite no claims for years and about 7,500 annual miles between three cars.
  • AMcA My theory is that that when the Big 3 gave away the store to the UAW in the last contract, there was a side deal in which the UAW promised to go after the non-organized transplant plants. Even the UAW understands that if the wage differential gets too high it's gonna kill the golden goose.
  • MKizzy Why else does range matter? Because in the EV advocate's dream scenario of a post-ICE future, the average multi-car household will find itself with more EVs in their garages and driveways than places to plug them in or the capacity to charge then all at once without significant electrical upgrades. Unless each vehicle has enough range to allow for multiple days without plugging in, fighting over charging access in multi-EV households will be right up there with finances for causes of domestic strife.
  • 28-Cars-Later WSJ blurb in Think or Swim:Workers at Volkswagen's Tennessee factory voted to join the United Auto Workers, marking a historic win for the 89- year-old union that is seeking to expand where it has struggled before, with foreign-owned factories in the South.The vote is a breakthrough for the UAW, whose membership has shrunk by about three-quarters since the 1970s, to less than 400,000 workers last year.UAW leaders have hitched their growth ambitions to organizing nonunion auto factories, many of which are in southern states where the Detroit-based labor group has failed several times and antiunion sentiment abounds."People are ready for change," said Kelcey Smith, 48, who has worked in the VW plant's paint shop for about a year, after leaving his job at an Amazon.com warehouse in town. "We look forward to making history and bringing change throughout the entire South."   ...Start the clock on a Chattanooga shutdown.