Recently, a Toronto man, despite being stabbed repeatedly, managed to press the OnStar button in his car, connecting to a switchboard operator in Kentucky who then contacted Toronto police. The perpetrators fled once they heard the operator say that help was on the way, thereby saving the victim who suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
What makes this story interesting is that it shows how GM's OnStar service is evolving. The fact that it is an "eye in the sky" of sorts is true, but there are some other unique features worth noting.
To get a better sense of all that, I visited OnStar's Command Center within GM's Renaissance Center in Detroit last month. Thereafter, I took a fully loaded OnStar-enabled 2011 Buick Lacrosse for a week-long test drive.
OnStar has six million subscribers in North America, 600,000 in Canada. There are three million button presses per month, two million of which are for turn-by-turn navigation. More than 300 Canadians press the emergency button every month, and 3,400 need OnStar to remotely unlock their car doors for one reason or another. Another 1,000 use OnStar for roadside assistance. And up to 270,000 e-mails are sent to users requesting diagnostic reports.
Auto theft is always a concern, and OnStar has both Remote Ignition Block and Stolen Vehicle Slowdown to assist in that. The way this works is that the subscriber reports the vehicle stolen by calling 1-888-4-ONSTAR, OnStar then pinpoints the location using GPS and calls local law enforcement to intercept.
If the vehicle is off, Remote Ignition Block is used to keep the engine from turning on. If it's still running, an OnStar operator can remotely slow the vehicle down to an idle speed - but only when police confirm they have the vehicle in sight.
OnStar also has a hands-free calling optional feature, thanks to a partnership with the carriers in both Canada and the U.S. to provide blanket coverage in most places. Calling works much like it would with a good Bluetooth speakerphone, except your cell phone isn't involved.
There's a "Welcome Call" package offered initially, which is 300 minutes for $14.99, but prices go up dramatically thereafter. Just 100 rollover minutes cost $50. That's pricey for an experience that is only slightly different than a Bluetooth setup. Granted, you can call OnStar to find a certain restaurant and patch you through on a call to the place, all of which is done without you lifting a finger, but voice-activated smartphone technology will continue to improve to close the gap.
The MyLink app for iPhone, iPad and Android is pretty neat. It works with 2010 or 2011 Cadillac, Chevy, Buick and GMC eligible vehicles, and offers remote lock/unlock, remote vehicle starter, real-time fuel information, remaining oil life and naturally, direct access to OnStar.
The app is slick, but not without some bugs. While it worked almost flawlessly for me, a colleague of mine found it to be sporadic.
Turn-by-turn navigation is also nice, but I suspect it's more for those who don't have portable navi units or smartphones to get around. I found the operators to be very helpful, but more so if I spontaneously needed to find something on the way to my destination.
OnStar's Safe and Sound package amounts to $24.95 per month or $289 per year. The Directions and Connections package is $39.90 per month or $438 per year because it includes everything the Safe and Sound package has, plus unlimited turn-by-turn navigation. A trial period on a new vehicle typically lasts six months, though a full year is sometimes provided, too.