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What Is OnStar®?

OnStar is immediately notified if a vehicle's airbag deploys.
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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2014
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OnStar® is reportedly the most popular telematics service in North America, available since 1996 on General Motors (GM) vehicles. Telematics converges General Positioning Satellie (GPS), cellular broadband and on-board electronics to provide information and emergency services to drivers. Initially conceived as a safety feature — a way to get help to accident victims fast — OnStar® has expanded to include hands-free email checking, directory-style services, weather or stock quotes and more.

Cars equipped with OnStar® feature a small panel of buttons located within easy reach of the driver; either on an overhead console, at the bottom of the rearview mirror, or in the dash. The buttons are color-coded: a red button for emergencies, a blue button to contact an OnStar® advisor and a cell button to make hands-free phone calls. The panel includes a built-in microphone and uses the car’s speaker system.

Emergency services are tied into various detectors on the vehicle, so that OnStar® is instantly notified if, for example, the airbag deploys. The Advanced Automatic Crash Notification System (AACN), a combination of modules and sensors, measures the severity of the accident based on gravitational force, records the data, and transmits it to the OnStar® advisor. An advisor immediately attempts to contact the driver. The advisor can call for law enforcement or ambulance services to render help if needed, relaying the location of the vehicle via the built-in GPS signal should the driver be unresponsive.

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The GPS feature can also be used to track the car if it is ever stolen, making OnStar® vehicles less appealing to thieves. If you lock your keys in the car, you can call OnStar®, provide your account number and a personal identification number (PIN), and the system will send a cellular signal to the vehicle to unlock the doors. Roadside assistance is also included, with the ability to send a tow truck or locate someone nearby to change a flat or deliver a can of gas.

Vehicle diagnosis is another service included in OnStar®. Integration into the vehicle’s system makes it possible to electrically monitor the engine, brakes and other components. A monthly status report is transmitted to OnStar® and forwarded to the owner if attention is required.

OnStar® can come in handy to find something fast, such as the closest ATM, a business or a restaurant. You can even get turn-by-turn driving directions. If this isn’t enough, OnStar® uses voice recognition and text-to-speech technologies to allow you to verbally surf the Web, listen to stock quotes, or receive sports information. If you have a Verizon cell phone plan, the OnStar cell button can share minutes with your cell plan.

OnStar® requires a monthly service fee with various plans available to choose from. OnStar® services are not activated unless a subscription plan is in place. By pushing the blue OnStar® button, one can reach a live or virtual menu to setup an account.

While OnStar® has millions of happy customers, it has also been criticized for being too invasive. The same systems that monitor an accident also record whether the seat belt was in place and how fast the driver was going. Critics speculate this could potentially be used to find the driver at fault and might also affect tangential issues like insurance premiums, denial of warranty repairs, and lawsuits against auto manufacturers for wrongdoing. OnStar®’s privacy policy states that it shares information with subsidiaries, which includes GMAC, a vehicle insurance provider. Privacy issues also extend to the on-board cell phone that could potentially be used to eavesdrop on drivers.

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