Onstar Explores The Line Between Convenience And Distraction

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
onstar explores the line between convenience and distraction

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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  • Tiredoldmechanic Tiredoldmechanic on Sep 09, 2010

    I recently purchased a 2010 sierra equipped with onstar and the hands free package. The truck I needed just happened to have it. I wasn't even planning to set any of it up until my 15 year old niece explained what "bluetooth" was and "paired" my blackberry with it. Then she walked me through setting up voice dialing. I mostly listened to be polite, but after learning how to use it I can say I would not be without it. Using handheld devices while driving is illegal in my province and I was losing a lot of time pulling over or letting calls pile up while I drove. I must say I am impressed with this system. That said, until I got used to it and learned where the buttons on the steering wheel were and what they did, it was a definate distraction. Much worse than using a hand held device. I don't use, or even know how to use, facebook, twitter, text messaging or other such things and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to deal with things like that while driving. Onstar? well it might be of some use if I hit a moose some dark morning. I can personally attest to the fact that it does not shut down your engine or call the cops if you exceed a certain speed. I bounced off the speed governor repeatedly on the way to an emergency a few weeks back and the cops were not waiting at my house that night. Nor has it e-mailed my wife when I stop in at the pub for a cold one (and only one) on my way home. It's a capability that the vehicle has, but how it's used is up to the driver. As noted above, those who are inclined to drive distracted will do so regardless of whether the vehicle makes it easy or not.

  • Gimmeamanual Gimmeamanual on Sep 10, 2010
    Because people should be encouraged to use communication technology they don’t understand while driving several tons of metal at high speeds which has consequences they won't acknowledge.

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