OnStar: Yet Another Example of Why GM Can't Compete

I recently purchased a Pontiac (rip) Vibe. I’m not a fan of domestic cars, but in this case, I made an exception, since the Vibe’s really a Toyota Matrix with a different logo.

The car came with a three month trial of OnStar, GM’s all purpose safety service that will help you out if your keys are locked in the car, you get in a wreck and are unresponsive, or if you need a tow or a tank of gas. Think high-tech triple-A. You can also use it as a phone, provided you’re willing to pay in the ballpark of $1.20 per minute.

I’ve been playing with OnStar since I got it, and I gotta say, it’s nothing but proof that GM doesn’t have their poop in a group.

Here’s the thing: All OnStar is, is a built in cell phone that has a one-touch dial to a call center just outside of Detroit. Plus a GPS and some sensors. That’s it. When your car wrecks (identified by sensors noticing frame damage or the airbags deploying), it places a call, and they check in to see if you need help. If you need a tow, you make the call yourself. Keys locked in the car? You call them on your mobile phone and they take care of you. They’ll even give you directions if you’re lost.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty good hack. All they did was install a phone, and pay the salary of a bunch of phone jockeys, and they can sell it as a high tech safety service. But it’s a hack. This would work fine in 2003, but these days, we expect automation, computer screens, and immediate service. I’ve got better technology in my pants. (Don’t look at me that way… I’m talking about my iPhone!)

Here’s my experience with OnStar:

Scenario 1: Keys Locked in Car

I call OnStar. Phone tree asks for my home phone number (my ID with OnStar), and walks me through a phone tree. Yes, I need emergency services. beep (This counts as an emergency, as opposed to billing questions or customer service) Okay, yes, my car’s locked. beep No, there aren’t any animals or people locked in the car. beep Please hold…

After a very brief wait (I’ve never experienced more than 30 seconds on hold, they’ve got that down pat.), I get a nice lady on the phone, who asks me for the same information I gave through the phone tree, then sends the unlock signal, and waits on the phone until I confirm the car’s unlocked – which happens almost instantly. She then asks me how my service was, how I’m doing, etc.. Finally I get her off the phone, lock my car, and go back into the house.

This is a cool trick, and it’ll be a real life saver for me one of these days. I’m terrible about locking up my keys. That said, why did I need to talk to a person? Why not punch in my ID, my secret code, and press 1 to unlock my car. Then there’s no hold time (presumably that’s why they ask whether there’s a living creature trapped in the car – to put you at the front of the queue), and no need for pleasantries. (I’m a geek, I’d rather not talk to people.)

All in all, great service, but the execution needs polish.

Scenario 2: Make a Phone Call

My OnStar system also works as a speaker phone. Keep in mind, that’s all it really is. It doesn’t, however, work with MY phone, so I have to buy minutes at exorbitant fees (over $1.20 per minute!), and call from an entirely different phone number from usual. Here’s how it goes.

beep! OnStar Activated

Me: “Call Number”

Car: “I didn’t understand that.”

Me: “Call Number”

Car: “Virtual Assistant. Say yes or no.”

Me: “No”

Car: “Please repeat that.”

Me: “NO!” (shouting)

Car: “Please repeat that.”

beep (I manually hang up)

blee boop (I hold down the big button on my iPhone)

Me: “Call [My Wife’s Name] Mobile”

iPhone: “Calling [My Wife’s Name, mis-pronounced], Mobile”

In other words, awful. Awful in every way. Yeah, maybe it’s worth having a spare phone in an emergency, but this isn’t worth ten cents a minute. For my $100 to buy minutes, I can get a swell bluetooth speakerphone and call it a day.

Scenario 3: Voice Guided Directions

For my trial period, I get directions. Now, I was expecting turn-by-turn GPS stuff, but as with everything OnStar, what I actually got was a nice phone receptionist… eventually.

beep! OnStar Ready! Connecting to OnStar advisor!

Advisor: “Thank you for calling OnStar”

Me: “Hi. I need directions to Coopersmith’s pub in Fort Collins, Colorado.”

Advisor: “What?”

Me: “I need directions to Coopersmith’s in Fort Collins.”

Advisor: “Huh?”


Advisor: “Okay… Let me look that up.”

(typing sounds)

Advisor: “Is that a business name?”

Me: “Yes.”

Advisor: “What?”

Me (shouting): “YES, IT IS A BUSINESS NAME!”

(at this point, I decide to always shout, since obviously the speaker can’t keep up with the road noise as I drive down I-25)

Advisor: “Okay, I think I’ve found it.” (“I think”???)

Me: “OKAY…”

beep! beep! beep!

WTF??? This is the standard OnStar hold sound. Maybe he’s loading up my GPS or something. I wait.

Advisor (a different one): “Did you need directions?”


Advisor: “Okay… That’s Super…? What?”

Me (screaming at the top of my lungs): “COOPERSMITHS! C-O-O-P-E-R-S-M-I-T-H-S!”

Advisor: “Okay… Just a second…”

beep! Your OnStar call has ended.

At this point, I was just curious whether I’d ever get directions. I clicked the button again and quickly got an advisor. I’ll skip the details, but she seemed to hear me okay (I was still yelling) and quickly looked up the business.

Advisor: “I can’t get a street address for that. Do you know if it’s at the intersection of Linden and Walnut?”

Me: “Yes, it is.” (I guess. I’m actually not sure those roads intersect.)

Advisor: “Great. It’s just a few turns, but if you’d like, you can download them to your car.”

Me: “Sounds good.”

Advisor: “Press the blue button.”


Me: “Done.”

Advisor: “Here are the directions…” (she reads them)

Advisor: “Now you can press the button again.”


Me: “Done.”

Advisor: “Great. To play back the directions, press the phone button, then say ‘Virtual Advisor’ and then say ‘Play.’ If you need to pause it, just press the phone button. When you call up the virtual advisor again, it will ask if you want to play, which starts over, or resume.”

Me: “Great! Thanks.”

Advisor: “Have a great day. Call us back if you need anything or have trouble finding it.”

beep! Your OnStar call has ended!

Me: “Virtual Advisor”

Car: “I don’t understand…”


All told, this took me 20 miles to complete. Good thing I was getting directions to a place that was 40 miles away, or else I would have shot past it an hour before.

Once again, OnStar proves the limitations of just being a phone. Well, a phone that can record your call. My turn by turn navigation is playing back a recording and stopping it after every turn until the next one comes up, and then hitting “play” again.

Are you serious?

This whole package, not including phone minutes, is $30/month. That’s pretty darn steep, but possibly worth it just for the emergency services. (Which costs $20 without the directions service) But overall, it’s a sad statement on GM’s technological capabilities.

I can see two ways to go with this service. One option is to just make it cheaper, and treat it like a triple-A subscription. Emergency services, $100/year. Or whatever. It would probably be worth it.

The other approach would be to just use the OnStar Advisors as what they are, people with computers that are one button away. Let them help you with more than just directions and phone numbers (for while, I have it on good authority, they just use Google Maps), and just look stuff up on the Internet, or even make some phone calls for you to find a laundromat that can press your suit before the wedding you’re attending.

Would I pay for that service? You bet! It would be a GM Concierge. Sure, it’ll require a GM car, but it would give everyone the admin assistant they’ve always wanted.

In the meantime, I’ll drive my Pontiyota (Toyotiac?), which I like a lot, and I know my wife will sleep easier knowing that if my airbags deploy, I’ll get emergency service promptly and automatically, even if I’m knocked out cold. But I have to say that it galls me to pay so much for so little.

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Written on August 27, 2010