The OnStar system in a Pontiac Torrent
The OnStar system in a Pontiac Torrent. Click image to enlarge

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OnStar Canada

By Jim Kerr; photos by Jil McIntosh

It hardly seems possible that it was only ten years ago that GM introduced OnStar to the Canadian market. Since that time, it has become part of our vocabulary and today in North America it is used by 5.6 million subscribers with 100 million customer contacts since service started. The OnStar system has also undergone many improvements since its inception.

OnStar uses a combination of Global Positioning System (GPS) and cellular phone technology. The GPS network has 24 satellites in precise positions orbiting 10,900 nautical miles above earth. The OnStar receiver uses a small 1.5-inch square antenna to receive signals from satellites. These signals are really only a timing signal code. Both the satellite and the vehicle’s receiver are generating the same signal, so the OnStar receiver can measure the time difference of the two signals to calculate the distance to the satellite. By comparing the distance from four different satellites, the exact position of the vehicle is determined.

Although there are still three OnStar call buttons inside the vehicle, the communications hardware is now in its eighth generation. Each new design has incorporated enhancements or new features. The original system was an emergency response system; if the customer pressed the emergency button, they were connected to OnStar emergency operators who could direct emergency assistance to your vehicle. OnStar operators could also remotely unlock your car if you accidently locked the keys inside.

The original OnStar systems also provided optional concierge service, where you could get road directions, local business addresses and even arrange for tickets to events. These services are still part of the OnStar system but have been improved upon.

In 2002, hands-free calling was introduced. The OnStar system could be used like a mobile cellular phone. This feature started by using digit by digit voice dialing, so the driver’s hands never have to leave the steering wheel. Now the system uses continuous voice recognition so calls are easier to initiate.

The OnStar cellular phone system uses a full 3.0-watt cellular system as opposed to the typical 0.6-watt portable cell phone. This provides superior range, but like all other OnStar features, there must still be cell phone reception in your driving area for the OnStar system to work.

For the 2006 model year, OnStar added Turn-By-Turn Navigation. To initiate Turn-By-Turn Navigation, the driver presses the OnStar button. Talking with the OnStar Advisor, the destination and route is programmed by the Advisor into a remote navigation computer server. The server loads an IP address into the car and the OnStar Advisor then signs off.

The server then downloads a small route database digitally into the vehicle. The database is specific to the route and destination instead of a broad database for a large area. Turn-By-Turn audible directions then begin, and provide street names as well as distances and directions for turns. If the driver misses a voice direction, it can be repeated by pressing a button. With the latest OnStar systems, if the vehicle has an on-board navigation system, Turn by Turn navigation can also be displayed on the vehicle map display.

Another new feature is OnStar Crisis Assist. Regardless of the level of service subscribed to, every OnStar customer gets assistance during a crisis situation. This includes 100 minutes of phone time. Events such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, severe winter storm warnings, power outages or hazardous material spills all qualify as crisis situations, and the system proved itself during the recent hurricanes along the Gulf coast of the U.S.

Stolen Vehicle Slowdown: the vehicle information centre warns that engine power is reduced
Stolen Vehicle Slowdown: the vehicle information centre warns that engine power is reduced. Click image to enlarge

The latest OnStar feature is Stolen Vehicle Slowdown. This feature enables police, in consultation with the car owner and OnStar, to reduce power on the vehicle so it only idles. To initiate the service, the owner reports the vehicle stolen and asks for stolen vehicle location. Only the vehicle owner can initiate the service. The police respond and working with OnStar operators, locate the vehicle. If the vehicle is in motion, the police can request a slow down. First, the OnStar operator remotely turns on the vehicle four way flashers. Only the outside lights flash – the dash lights remain off. This allows police to verify that they are observing the correct vehicle and acts as a warning to others without notifying the stolen vehicle driver. Now with the vehicle in sight, OnStar reduces power to the vehicle engine until it only idles. The vehicle can still drive but only at a very low speed, to allow police to apprehend the driver.

Stolen vehicle Slowdown was launched on September 29th, 2008 and about 1 million 2009 vehicles will have this system.

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