By Jim Kerr

GM’s OnStar is celebrating its 10th anniversary. When it started
appearing in vehicles, few would have dreamed how this technology has
changed to meet the needs of drivers and how well it has been accepted.
Just ask the 3800 owners a month who use the remote unlock feature of

During OnStar’s ten years, the system has progressed through seven hardware designs and now OnStar development is integrated in to the total vehicle design process. With vehicle development shortened from four years to about two years, OnStar is capable of integrating new technology into the vehicles as soon as possible. OnStar has grown by offering value through safety and security. In recent years, several new features have been added to OnStar and the systems have moved from being offered in only a few niche vehicles to the mainstream. OnStar is now offered on almost all GM vehicles.

How popular is it? In North America, OnStar deals with about 138,000 customer interactions a month. In Canada, there are an average 44 air bag deployment notifications a month, which starts an automatic call process where an OnStar advisor tries to contact the vehicle and deploys emergency aid as needed. 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 dialling, 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. When hands-free calling was introduced, GM sold 24,000 minutes in the first month. Now, 24,000 minutes a day are used!

Another advancement in OnStar service is in Automatic crash
notification. Near airbag deployment situations trigger a call to the
OnStar centre and an Advisor responds. I witnessed this feature in
operation recently when another driver was a little too aggressive while testing a GM SUV through a series of pylons. The vehicle sensed a
near-accident and called the OnStar centre. The driver then received a
call to ask if everything was OK. Fortunately, the driver learned the
handling limits before the OnStar Advisor had to call emergency services.

The newest OnStar feature is called Turn By Turn Navigation. Customer
surveys show that they find on-board navigation systems are too costly
and can be difficult to program. Most systems also require the driver to take their eyes off the road to program and some even require the
vehicle to be stopped. Turn By Turn Navigation eliminates all those

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 now 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.

The vehicle uses satellite global positioning sensing and ABS wheel
speed sensors to determine vehicle location in relation to the route
database. If the driver takes a wrong turn, they are notified by the
system and are linked back to the server. New directions are downloaded
to return to correct route. The route is maintained even if the ignition is off. Pull off for a coffee and the system will ask if you want a new route when you start the vehicle. If you say “NO”, then the system will automatically continue with directions when you return to the route.

Turn By Turn navigation needs no upgrades. The map database is
automatically upgraded at the OnStar centre every three months so it is
always current. There is no need to take your eyes off the road to use
the system, although some GM vehicles do use the driver information
centre or heads-up display for additional information. Want to change
your route? Simply call the OnStar Advisor again and a new route will be entered.

Turn By Turn Navigation is a subscription service offered on a few 2006
and many 2007 GM vehicles. It costs $438 a year, less than the $529
Directions and Connections OnStar service offered on older OnStar
systems. The subscription may seem costly, but it also includes the Safe and Sound features as well. Compared to the cost of a $2500 on-board navigation system, the OnStar Turn By Turn feature would be equal in price in about 5 ½ years, but that’s not including upgrade map
subscriptions for the on-board system or the added benefits and ease of
use of OnStar. The past ten years have seen dramatic changes in
computers and communications. We can only guess what OnStar will offer
in the next ten years.

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