Sgt. John Johnston of the Toronto Police Traffic Services reports the stolen car
Sgt. John Johnston of the Toronto Police Traffic Services reports the stolen car. Click image to enlarge

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OnStar Canada

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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OnStar’s new Stolen Vehicle Slowdown

Toronto, Ontario – It’s rather out of character for me, but the other day I stole a car.

The police officer in the cruiser behind my “stolen” Chevrolet Impala knew about it, of course, as did the operator at OnStar – who promptly hit whatever button she uses, and via global satellite positioning (GPS) and cellular technology, pinpointed my ride and then brought it almost to a halt before I could get away with it.

It’s called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, and GM will eventually add it to vehicles across its product line, starting with model-year 2009. An addition to the existing Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance service, which uses GPS to determine where a stolen vehicle is, the slowdown service allows an OnStar operator to send a special signal to the vehicle that interacts with the powertrain control module. The module instantly cuts engine power down to idle speed, eliminating the possibility of a high-speed police chase, or the thief getting away with the vehicle and possibly injuring others as he does.

The vehicle information centre warns that engine power is reduced. Click image to enlarge

The new service is the latest addition to OnStar, which has been around since 1996 in the U.S. and since 1998 in Canada, and currently has more than 5.6 million active subscribers. In North America, operators assist in an average of 700 stolen vehicle locations each month.

Slowdown is intended to take the service a step further and prevent thieves from running from the police. GM Technology Planning Manager Tom Odell said that over one million vehicles are stolen each year in North America, and there are more than 30,000 high-speed chases. Some 25 per cent of those result in injuries, often to innocent bystanders, and about 300 people are killed each year because of them.

The system uses the latest Generation 8 OnStar and includes a program in the engine module, and so can’t be retrofitted to older vehicles. It was officially launched in all of North America early in September 2008, and is currently going into certain production vehicles. For 2009, it will be available on the Buick Lucerne; Cadillac DTS, V8 SRX, and regular Escalade and ESV and EXT models; the Chevrolet Avalanche, Impala, Silverado, Suburban and Tahoe; GMC Sierra, Sierra Denali, Yukon, Yukon XL, Yukon Denali, and Yukon XL Denali; the Hummer H2 and H2 SUT; and the Saturn Vue. Currently, it’s not available on hybrid or diesel models.

It’s part of the Safe & Sound package, which is included in the year’s subscription that comes with every new vehicle; owners will have to renew their subscriptions annually after that in order for the Slowdown to work. (Should you not want it operable on your new car, you can opt out of it, but you’ll have to take the car to a dealer to have the programming reset should you later change your mind.)

Its deployment requires OnStar and local police working together. When the owner reports the vehicle stolen, she also calls OnStar; that operator works with the police dispatcher. The OnStar operator uses the Stolen Vehicle Location system to find the vehicle, and tells the police where it is.

The Stolen vehicle comes to idle on the street
The Stolen vehicle comes to idle on the street. Click image to enlarge

If the vehicle is parked, the police simply take possession of it. But if someone is driving it, it’s time to use the Slowdown. First, the police officer relays that he has a clear view of the vehicle. The OnStar operator sends a signal that causes the stolen vehicle’s parking lights – not its four-ways – to flash. This verifies to the police that it’s the right vehicle and that it’s receiving the signals, but there’s no indication on the instrument cluster as there would be with four-ways, and so the thief doesn’t realize the lights have flashed.

The officer then determines if it’s safe to slow the vehicle down; when it is, the information is relayed to the OnStar operator, who sends the signal. Immediately, engine power is cut to idle, and the vehicle slows down.

It sounds time-consuming, but it actually all happens very quickly. Depending on the police jurisdiction – and the infrastructure is steadily growing – the owner either calls OnStar or the police directly, or both. As the system becomes more widespread in vehicles, the police may eventually contact OnStar themselves if a chase involves a vehicle that they think may have Slowdown.

“The program began in September 2007, and we worked with law enforcement to see what they needed,” Odell said. It was a long process, involving numerous considerations; in the end, it was decided not to automatically lock the suspect into the vehicle, or to use the OnStar system to communicate with the suspects and tell them that they are being followed. Numerous safeguards were also built in to make it difficult to defeat the system; Odell said that work on this will be continuous, in an effort to stay ahead of criminals.

He didn’t stay ahead of me, but then, it was easy enough to steal the Impala (a 2008 model specially fitted by GM engineers as a test vehicle), given that he handed me the keys. Sgt. John Johnston of Toronto Police Traffic Services followed me out of the parking lot and down the street. Once the road was clear, I was told to “drive it like you stole it”.

The Impala has been disabled
The Impala has been disabled. Click image to enlarge

So I did – but I didn’t get very far. I wasn’t aware that the parking lights flashed, although I was told that they did. All I knew was that, suddenly, my car wouldn’t go. A chime sounded, and a warning of “Engine Power Is Reduced” came up in the vehicle information centre below the speedometer. No matter how hard I hit the throttle, the engine stubbornly stayed at its reduced rpm. The brakes and steering continued to work, though, and I was able to bring it to a stop by the curb, although by this time, the car wasn’t going much faster than about walking speed.

If I hadn’t known what was happening, I would have suspected either engine failure or an empty gas tank – which is what GM expects most thieves will also think, at least until the system becomes better-known. Once the OnStar operator was notified, she sent a signal, and the car went back into its normal mode and I was able to drive it again as before.

Conspiracy theorists will probably have a field day with this – I expect some chat rooms to explode with those convinced it will lead to fully governed traffic patterns – but I think most owners will view it as an effective theft deterrent and, beyond that, as a means to avoid dangerous high-speed chases and the resulting human and property damage.

And if it eventually puts the TV show Cops and its reliance on chase scenes out of business, well, no great loss there either.

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