By on September 9, 2010

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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28 Comments on “Onstar Explores The Line Between Convenience And Distraction...”

  • avatar

    I question the value of most of these in-car gadget. If you want email, Facebook and the like, get a smart phone and you can take it with you anywhere. Car based streaming internet audio and navigation I can understand but Facebook?
    As for the safety aspects, you’d have to be knee deep in that Egyptian river to think that young drivers won’t be distracted by colorful flashing screens. Just wait until GM sells advertising via these in car entertainment units.

    • 0 avatar

      There is no screen, it’s simply speaker/mic.
      Women are the largest users of the Facebook system.
      They take our lives everyday running down innocent cruiser riders waiting at stop lights at full speed of 60 mph and doing their nails.
      Google any of it to see the carnage across the planet.
      All rear end crashes between two vehicles is the women in front veh, guy in second veh, when she slams on the brakes for no reason from the slightest distraction, changing 4 lanes of traffic missing exits, etc.
      When you see them on their cell, stand on the horn before you pass to make them look, or you may be the next victim, because they will be in the wrong lane going slower.
      Live another day as it was meant.

  • avatar

    Have they even thought about the liability when someone crashes into another car while using Facebook or texting with OnStar? Can you imagine the lawyers lining up to take that case.

  • avatar

    The more I hear about OnStar the more annoyed I am with it. I don’t even like to update my status at home, why would I want to in my car? Our attention, generally speaking, is already fractured as it is and we want to further fracture it by having more things in the car that scream for our attention. Some people will use something just because it’s there and not necessarily because they have any real need to use it and this will make it worse.

    I had an 08 or 09 rental Sable for a couple hours while I was getting my windows tinted and attempted to use the SYNC system to change the radio station thinking, “This is cool I push a button and say what I want.” I very quickly got irritated listening to the “helper” robot person voice thing and reached over to turn the station. Am I a ludite because I don’t want to have to deal with all of this crap?

    Another thing I do not like about OnStar is that supposedly if you’re going 90 mph (well above the speed limit I know) the OnStar system will inform you that engine shutdown is imminant and they, the OnStar operator, will notify the police of your speeding. I heard this from a friend who apparently had it happen. She slowed down before the engine could be disabled though. I’m not sure how true this story is, but it sounds possible.

  • avatar

    Facebook, now that’s some important crap that just can’t wait for you to get home to update.
    What happens when Facebook goes the way of 8-tracks and “My Space”.

    “allowing them to update their status while taking their life into their hands on the road”
    Screw “their life”, my concern is for the poor victim these idiots will hurt or kill. People that drive while doing crap like this obviously have no regard for others and I hope they remove themselves (without injury to others) from the gene pool before they can reproduce.

  • avatar

    Onstar does no such thing.  It most certainly does not “rat you out” to the police, nor disable your engine, if you’re speeding.  This rumour has been banging around for some time.
    An operator can track and liaise with police if you call them first and report the vehicle stolen.
    Personally, I had it on my Saab and it did no such thing when I blew past 140km/h.

  • avatar

    Yes, perfectly safe.  What could possibly go wrong?
    I’ll feel much safer when everyday driving is automated.

    • 0 avatar

      You might want to have a conversation with a software engineer or three about that “automated driving” safety. I’ve yet to meet one who would trust their lives to the software they write (and no, that’s not a comment on their talents).If your laptop crashes while you’re surfing the internet, it’s an annoyance and an inconvenience. If the computer in your car crashes while you’re being guided at 70mph in the middle of a pack of automated cars…

    • 0 avatar

      >>>You might want to have a conversation with a software engineer

      I think he was being sarcastic – especially since he goes by the name segfault.

    • 0 avatar

      Only somewhat sarcastic…  Aerospace engineers say the same thing about not wanting to fly on newly-designed planes.

    • 0 avatar

      You wouldn’t stick Windows inside of a car and then run DRIVE.EXE on top of it.
      You would have a proper RTOS separated into multiple components, each assuming that the others can and will fail.
      I would not mind being the passenger in a computer-controlled car.  Even if it safer, though, the lawyers can still stop it from happening.

  • avatar

    Maybe it can change your Facebook status to “in critical condition” when you crash at 40MPH and “dead” when you hit something at 70MPH+? How convenient is that!

  • avatar

    This really can’t wait until you’re not driving? Seriously? I’m sorry, but I think people who answer ‘no’ have a dangerously over-blown perception of how important texting and facebook to be. Specifically, that it’s important enough to claim half of your attention while you’re driving. I’d suggest these individuals go a week without texting. Do something safe instead, like smoking Lucky Strikes. They’re Toasted(TM).

  • avatar

    Here’s the thing: people who use Facebook or Twitter while driving will do so with or without the likes of OnStar. Given that, wouldn’t you prefer they use a system that minimizes risk, rather than seeing them attempt to use a BlackBerry at 100km/h+?

    I know it would be nice if it weren’t necessary, but since it’s going to happen anyway (just like, eg, drunk driving, inattention, poor weather, etc) we should leverage technology to fix the problem, rather than futilely wishing it wasn’t a problem in the first place.

    • 0 avatar

      I would prefer a system that, when it detects someone is trying to update their Facebook status while driving, locked all the doors, disabled the airbags, detached the seatbelts, and then rammed into a brick wall at 140 MPH.

  • avatar

    I personally would find it hilarious if my car started reading my text messages to me.

  • avatar

    Safety is one issue. The other is that, to accommodate the distracted driver, the driving environment is likely to be further dumbed down by way of more automated controls and more restrictive laws.

  • avatar

    Multitasking is making driving more unsafe. It is OK to multi-task at home or when not operating a machine. It seems to me that people are pressured into always texting and communicating, even though sometimes people should just disconnect and focus or relax.

    • 0 avatar

      Multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at a time, and all of them poorly.
      I remember reading an interview with an automotive engineer who said that for many drivers, driving the car is a distraction from what they are doing in the vehicle.  The engineers were trying to design driving systems around that.  For anybody reading TTAC, this is heresy, but based on what I see on the road it is probably accurate.

  • avatar

    I live in fear!
    I must be getting old, but at only 39 I starting to get sick of these “advancements” in technology. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 1080p HDTV, killer 7.1 surround sound, iMac computer, various iPods, TiVo unit, instant weather radar on my phone, GPS on the boat, etc… but is updating your Facebook status while driving something anyone on this planet needs? Who gives a flying frack that you are “on the way to pick up Mickey Ds – mmmmm fries”? Seriously this a horrible idea, but if it adds another bullet point on the sales brochure I bet they add it ASAP.

  • avatar

    Why do the offer cars with 300+ horsepower when you can’t use all of that on public roads without being a safety hazard?
    Features like this are selling points for the brochure.  The few people who would actually use this would just do the same thing from their handset while driving anyway.  Don’t blame technology for poor driving habits.  There is nothing wrong with offering the capability, it’s up to the individual driver to determine when and if it is safe to use it.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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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