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OnStar: What Is It?

15 January 1998

My Cadillac Concours test car was equipped with the OnStar system. First introduced in the premium Northstar Cadillacs during the 1996 model year, it is now available in many other General Motors products. It is based on cellular telephone and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, and, although it has navigation capabilities, it is far more than an onboard navigation system.

OnStar is more like a personal valet that is only a phone call away. Other navigation systems, including GM's GuideStar, use onboard hardware and software to determine the vehicle's position, and display it on a liquid crystal monitor in the car. OnStar has no monitor. Instead of fiddling with the navigation system controls - a process which, in some cases, makes programming a VCR fun in comparison - OnStar users simply make a call to the OnStar center on the car's cell phone. Before a voice connection is established, the OnStar system sends a burst of data with the car's VIN number and location, determined, as with ordinary navigation systems by GPS and dead reckoning. When the human OnStar operator answers, the caller gives the appropriate password, and then has the full range of OnStar services available.

Notice the "human operator" in the previous paragraph. Real, live, flexible humans answer the OnStar calls. When they do, the caller's identification and location appear on a computer in front of them. The computer has a database with services, restaurants, points of interest, and maps for areas covered by OnStar. This is analogous to what is contained in most onboard navigation systems, but the driver or navigator doesn't have to deal with figuring it out. And onboard navigation systems are not designed to be used by the driver when the car is in motion. If a solo driver in an OnStar-equipped car is lost, he or she can just call OnStar (ideally with the phone in hands-free mode) and get directions from the operator.

OnStar is more than a navigation system, though. Because of the computer-controlled nature of modern cars, the OnStar operator can remotely unlock or beep the horn on an OnStar-equipped car. Lock your keys in the car? Call the OnStar center from the nearest pay phone, tell them how long it will be until you get to the car, and they can unlock it for you.

There are also safety aspects to the system. The cell phone used for OnStar has a special emergency speed-dial button, and the OnStar center will be automatically notified by the car if an airbag is deployed. If an OnStar car is stolen, OnStar knows where it is. So do the authorities, quickly.

The range of services offered and areas covered by OnStar is expanding rapidly. Because it is operates through the cellular telephone network, it is subject to the limitations of cell phone coverage. But, that, too, is expanding rapidly.

With the increased use of electronics for navigation and control systems like Stabilitrak, modern automobiles are getting ever closer to aerospace technology. Welcome to the 21st century.

Carey Russ -- The Auto Channel