Originally created 08/31/97

GM's OnStar: A phone system that reaches out



It was pure coincidence that my boss handed out beepers to several of us business writers on the day that a Cadillac DeVille Concours arrived for me to test with a system called OnStar that enables someone sitting hundreds of miles away in Farmington Hills, Mich., to know where I am at any moment.

But the two combined to provide a new experience in instant communications, at the end of which I decided that I can live with a beeper, which has an on/off switch, but I'm not sure I'd want this $900 Big Brother called OnStar in my car - the only place where no one can bug me, even though there are times when it's nice to have a big brother.

You see, OnStar is a lot more than just a cellular telephone. And unlike a cellular phone, it can't be shut off when you don't want anyone in your space - when you "vont to be a-lone."

It combines cellular telephone and global positioning satellite technology to put subscribers in touch with OnStar staffers in the center in Michigan 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can give you directions by car phone to the nearest gas station, Cadillac dealer, hospital, post office, marina, book store, campground, tailor shop, church, McDonald's, French restaurant, automated teller machine - any of more than 3 million locations in its database. The directions are verbal - not displayed on a screen. This is not a navigation system like Oldsmobile's GUIDESTAR, even though it employs much of the same technology.

- The OnStar staffers can recommend a good hotel in the area and get the reservations desk on the phone with you.

- They can unlock your car doors remotely should you lock your keys in the car.

- They can flash the car lights and honk the horn to help you find it in a parking lot.

Whether you'd want it or not, you'd probably agree that OnStar is impressive.

For '97, the system has been available in the Cadillac DeVille, Eldorado and Seville. For '98, the Cadillac Catera and many more GM cars and trucks will be available with it - a total of 24 models.

Which is a good thing for people who can't afford a DeVille or, like me, just don't care for this soft-riding, rather clumsy sedan, despite its quiet ride and 300-horsepower, V8 engine and the new more ergonomically friendly interior. OnStar costs $895, plus dealer installation, which should take an hour and cost about $100. The OnStar service costs $22.50 a month, plus the cost of cellular telephone service.

On Day 1 with it, and with the beeper on my belt, I called home from the OnStar-equipped DeVille while in Newsday's parking lot and left a message on my answering machine saying I was on the way. I was the first and only person to listen to it when I arrived home - except for the dog, who overheard me record it but steadfastly refuses to take telephone messages. And so, I was using the cellular phone technology, a telephone land line and an answering machine to, in essence, talk to myself. I used to do that all the time without help.

As I replaced the OnStar handset in its cradle in the DeVille's center console, I accidentally pressed a red button on the handset that automatically telephones the OnStar center and indicates a medical emergency. In seconds, an OnStar rep was talking to me through the car speakers, asking if everything was OK. I apologized.

The OnStar reps also will send the police if you ask them to, and even if you don't ask if you have an accident, your car's air bags deploy or the OnStar people are unable to reach you to determine your condition.

On Day 2 with the DeVille, a few minutes after leaving home I called OnStar for directions to the Atlantic Auto Mall, where I was to do an interview. I knew it was on Sunrise Highway but didn't know the address and couldn't remember what north-south route was nearest to it.

To call OnStar for non-medical help, you simply press the green button on the handset. An OnStar rep answered quickly and verified my location, exactly, and which way I was headed. She found the auto mall's address and told me it was near Udall Road. And so it was.

The OnStar rep also was thoughtful enough to mention that Sunrise Highway is also New York's State Route 27. I knew that, but someone unfamiliar with Long Island might not.

On Day 3 with the beeper and OnStar I suddenly felt a vibration on my left hip - like a muscle spasm - and quickly realized it was the beeper's silent signal. I pressed the button to acknowledge the signal and see who wanted me, but there was no number there. The next day, it happened again, only that time, my home number was displayed. But nobody had beeped. Next day, it happened again. It was then I realized that the beeper has an alarm clock built into it, and somehow it had been set.

In almost a week, at this writing, no one at work has needed me for anything important enough to beep me. Some might worry about that.

The cellular phone that comes with the OnStar system is impressive; it can be operated totally hands-free - once you engage the on switch on the steering wheel. Want to make a call? Nothing to it. Once you've switched on the phone, a female voice says "Ready" and you say "Dial." She says "Number please" and you recite the number, pausing after each numeral for a confirming tone and for the numeral to be displayed on the car's dashboard below the speedometer.

If you mumble or sneeze while giving a command, the voice says "Pardon?" or "Again," which means "Repeat," not "Please mumble or sneeze again." Once you've recited the number, you say "Call," and it does.

I didn't need OnStar for anything else over the next few days and sort of felt guilty about requesting information or services I didn't really need. It was plain, anyway, that the system works as advertised and that the OnStar people are on the ball.

Keep in mind, though, that the folks at OnStar knew that this Cadillac was being test-driven by a reporter. So, maybe I got extra-efficient treatment. More important, I wonder if they will be as efficient when today's 14,000 OnStar subscribers grow to 114,000 customers and it's a heavy travel period like Labor Day weekend.

OnStar spokesman Todd Carstensen said the center has 15 to 20 people staffing it at peak times. "That would certainly be adjusted upward as more systems are out there," he said. In fact, a second OnStar center was opened in Troy, Mich.

This system, though, raises serious questions in my mind about privacy. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but can anyone be blamed for feeling that way in an age when zit-faced geeks with no lives can hack into your PC?

Carstensen said no record is kept of a car's location when drivers call for help, although OnStar does keep a record of who calls and what service was rendered. He said OnStar will not "track" a car unless the car's security system is breached. In that case, the car's owner will be notified.

But what happens if the police or the FBI or the IRS or Interpol or All the President's Men get a court order to have your car tracked ... just as they can to have your phone tapped? Remember, this system cannot be shut off. And how certain is it that a private detective with connections to a law enforcement agency won't get hold of where you go and where you've been?

Carstensen said the issue of court-ordered tracking hasn't come up but that, if it ever does, OnStar will refer the matter to General Motors corporate security for advice.

So, technically, OnStar is a triumph and surely seems like it could pay for itself in an emergency, particularly for people who travel a lot. Philosophically, though, it might be something less welcome.

Data on the General Motors OnStar

What: A mobile communications system, combining cellular telephone, global positioning technolgy and one-on-one personal help.

Why: For directions, roadside mechanical and travel assistance, emergency medical aid and more.

Initial Price: $895 plus dealer installation (about $100).

Monthly Cost: $22.50 plus cellular telephone service.

Available: In the Cadillac DeVille, Eldorado and Seville for 1997, and in those and 21 other GM cars and trucks for '98.