We all have heard of OnStar. Most automotive consumers are aware of what the company offers users and subscribers via the endless number of television commercials produced over the years. They range from humorous Tiger Woods examples to the more serious “We’ve-been-in-an-accident” spots.
I’m going to try not to bore readers a great deal on the specifics of OnStar. What I want to talk about is if this concept really works.
What Is OnStar?
OnStar came into inception in 1996 on higher-end General Motors vehicles and offered drivers hands-free communication as well as an innovative safety device in case the inevitable happens. Today, OnStar has over five million subscribers, is offered in over 50 different GM vehicles, and offers a vast array of options.
How OnStar works is, simply, the system utilizes both Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) as well as wireless phone technology to locate your vehicle wherever you may be and help you receive anything from turn-by-turn directions to vehicle diagnostics to emergency services in case the vehicle has been in an accident.
What Does OnStar Offer?
Surprisingly, a lot. Press the middle blue button located below the rearview mirror and the voice of a human person (not an automated machine) comes through the speakers and assists you with anything you may need, depending on your plan.
Directions to Grandma’s? No problem. Traveling and need to make overnight accommodations? OnStar can help you. Engine not running smoothly? OnStar can let you know what is wrong with the vehicle and direct you to the nearest dealership.
The system can even unlock your doors if the keys become locked in the vehicle as well as beep the horn if you forget where the vehicle is located. (If subscribed to both OnStar and XM satellite radio, users can access live traffic and weather updates for the city they are located in.)
Additionally, the button with the red cross offers emergency assistance if you are in an accident or need any sort of police/medical assistance. If the vehicle is in a severe accident where the airbags go off, OnStar will automatically call emergency services as well as call you to check on the occupants of the vehicle. If you are the unfortunate victim of car theft, OnStar can track the vehicle and can slow the vehicle down.
Finally, the button on the left controls your hands-free phone. If you so desire, the car’s cellular device can be added on to your Verizon Wireless cell phone plan and use the car’s system instead of trying to drive while trying to hold that little glowing piece of plastic to your face (i.e. much safer). (You may also purchase minutes directly from OnStar as well.)
According to OnStar, you can opt for a few different options. For $19.99 per month ($200/year), subscribers have access to all the safety communication features as well as navigation, vehicle unlock and Roadside Assistance. This is called the Protection Plan.
For an additional $5 a month ($24.99/month; $250/year), users can access everything listed above as well as Stolen Vehicle Assistance.
If you want OnStar’s turn-by-turn directions and their concierge service called AtYourService which allows subscribers to find the nearest hotels and have them book it for you, get tickets to an event, or check your mutual fund prices on the New York Stock Exchange, you’ll need to fork up $34.99/month ($350/year).
Please note, pricing is accurate as I write this article.
Is OnStar Worth It?
I have had a lot of time to mull this over, and gave the system a thorough test-drive while I was behind the wheel of Automoblog’s 2009 GMC Acadia test vehicle, and I have come to the conclusion that yes, OnStar is a worthy system, but there are some aspects which give me pause.
There are a lot of positives to using OnStar. For one, is so simple to operate. Instead of fumbling around with a GPS system, you simply press a button and let someone else do the work. You still have all the convenience of an everyday system, but it is much easier and much simpler to operate.
This is especially critical when you are traveling at highway speeds, where taking your eyes off the road for a split second to fumble with a navigation system, read a newspaper, dial a phone, etc. can lead to an unplanned disaster.
Speaking of safety, the Emergency Services offered should make OnStar important enough to subscribe. Having the comfort to know that if you are involved in an accident, help will be sent whether you call for it or not.
In addition, if the car is stolen, OnStar can help you stop the perpetrators from getting away with your vehicle and get it back safely. That would certainly help lower car thefts as well as keep insurance premiums low.
Finally, in today’s world of email, text messages, and other forms of low human interaction, it is reassuring to know when pressing the blue button, there is an actual living, breathing person on the other end.
I actually enjoyed the idea of knowing that with one press of a button, someone will be there to help me with whatever I may need. No computers to type to, no automated voices with hundreds of sub-menus to go through.
Don’t let these positives ensue this system in perfect. There are a few minor problems as well as one gaping issue.
First, the price. For a one-year subscription with OnStar, subscribers could purchase themselves a very nice, portable GPS unit, filled with hundreds of thousands of bits of information and technology which is displayed on a crisp color screen instead of on the tiny radio display. It’s not exactly what I would call affordable.
Also, there will be times when the tedious effort of dealing with voice-activated menus. For example, using the telephone feature requires the user to say the number or the pre-stored name, confirm the number/name, and then again confirm to call. And it’s the same if the driver wants to find out the traffic reports.
The really big issue with OnStar comes from a worry about “Big Brother”. Many speculate that OnStar and GM can use the ability to know where your car is and where you are traveling to calculate data on speed and driving characteristics, which can be used by police and automobile insurance companies to issue fines and increase premiums, depending on the situation.
Back in 2008, GM’s financial branch GMAC announced it uses data received by OnStar which allows drivers to receive a discount on their GMAC insurance. What occurs is the driver signs up for the program, where they will receive an 11 percent discount.
Then, a monthly statement is forwarded to GMAC with a mileage calculation. The fewer miles you drive, the bigger your discount is, according to a General Motors press release. To some, this may be a great way to save money. Others see it as another way to pry.
Other OnStar reviews online show a huge problem with their billing practices and terrible customer service. If you read some of the comments on this article, you’ll see exactly how polarized this issue is.
Many customers are getting charged automatically for services they didn’t sign up for, or are accusing OnStar of not cancelling their service when they tried to cancel, even multiple times. Multiple customers have even claimed that they started being charged for their service without even providing a credit card number!
Like everything else in this world, nothing is perfect. There are always going to be concessions. How many, and how large, of a concession are people willing to take for a service that, in theory, works?