OnStar expands, eyes competition in the rearview
OnStar is racing to sell its services to millions of consumers outside of the GM family and ahead of the growing number of competitors that remain, at least for now, in its rearview mirror.
Posted March 29, 2011
By VERNON CLEMENT JONES, EVERGEEK MEDIA
Available as early as June, OnStar's aftermarket telematics system (found in a replacement rearview mirror with OnStar built-in) is all but identical to those installed in more than 30 GM models. Both come embedded with the OnStar technology first floated in 1995 as a way of connecting drivers with emergency assistance. Since then, the list of features has grown to include automatic crash response, turn-by-turn navigation, hands-free calling, vehicle diagnostics and stolen-vehicle location and slowdown, to name a few. What hasn't changed is the layout: OnStar controls remain clustered around the rearview mirror, making it easier to transfer the system to non-GM vehicles.
Currently, more than 6 million GM owners pay as little as 20 bucks a month to access those services. OnStar is now chasing down the owners of the 90 million other vehicles on North American roads compatible with its aftermarket system, dubbed OnStar FMV (For My Vehicle).
"OnStar FMV meets the same rigorous standards for safety, reliability and performance we've developed in 15 years of producing and perfecting OnStar for GM vehicles," Greg Ross, OnStar's VP of Business Extensions, told reporters in March. "Drivers of Fords, Toyotas and other vehicles now have the unique 'blue button' OnStar experience that brings together the best of technology with the best of person-to-person customer service."
GM may be getting ahead of itself given the growing number of competitors looking to win over the same Canadian drivers.
Detroit rival Ford is leading the charge for automakers determined to close the gap between themselves and industry leader OnStar.
Introduced in 2009, Ford's Sync offers core safety features, but also new wireless conveniences linking a vehicle to an owner's mobile phone in order to provide real-time updates on a car's status. Unlike GM, there is no extra charge for Ford's telematics system.
There are other differences, too.
Instead of using an embedded system like OnStar's, Sync relies on its Bluetooth capability to connect an owner's cell phone to navigation and traffic information as well as emergency assistance and other concierge services. If an airbag deploys or the fuel pump shuts off in a crash, Sync contacts local 911 authorities directly, bypassing the in-house dispatchers OnStar uses. And when drivers can't speak for themselves, a pre-recorded message steps in.
Like factory-installed systems developed by BMW and Mercedes, Sync can also send vehicle diagnostic reports to an owner's cell phone or email account, and the telematics systems of those German automakers will also go to the trouble of contacting a dealer for a service appointment - cheeky devils. They're not beyond transmitting traffic information to a car's LCD screen, either, or giving drivers the same turn-by-turn guidance OnStar will soon hawk to North Americans drivers of non-GM vehicles manufactured in the last 10 years.
Still, OnStar doesn't yet have a lock on General Motors customers.
Only this month, it moved to extend mobile app services to more than a dozen 2010 Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models. The application, downloaded by near 60,000 users since its launch last year, enables OnStar customers to remotely check fuel levels and tire pressure, start their vehicles and make sure doors are locked. It has also amassed 1.3 million interactions, with Chevy Cruze and Silverado drivers are among its biggest users.
Like Ford's Sync and Toyota's Entune, the app turns a driver's smartphone into a traditional key fob. It means drivers will no longer have to be near, or even have their keys with them, in order to communicate with their rides.
"Giving our customers control of their vehicles with smart phone application technology is a key advantage of OnStar's in-vehicle connectivity," said Chris Preuss, OnStar president. "This technology empowers drivers to make decisions about their travels well before they enter the vehicle, meaning their full attention can stay where it needs to be – on the road ahead."
GM, Hyundai, Honda and others have now banded together in an effort to standardize the way in which drivers interact with those apps. The Car Connectivity Consortium has settled on Terminal Mode as that standard. It creates a link between a smartphone and a car's telematics system by replicating the layout of the phone's control panel on the dashboard screen.
That kind of technology is more focused on entertainment than safety, charge critics, suggesting it might actually compromise the latter.
"First-time users might find it impossible to comprehend," reads Consumer Reports review of the Ford Sync system, published in February. "The system did not always perform as promised." The mighty consumer watchdog panned the new technology as an unnecessary distraction for drivers - even young ones.
Ford is now promising to improve Sync, but has no intention of removing technology that might just allow it to catch up to telematics frontrunner, GM.