OnStar peddles “peace of mind” telematics


Selling “peace of mind” may sound like a vague business concept, but one company has this honed down to a science.

OnStar Canada is best known for its role in successfully incorporating emerging consumer-based technologies into the vehicle development process. But driving all these efforts, the company says, is one goal – to make the vehicle owner’s life simple, safe and serene.

In Detroit, this week, OnStar showcased some of these “peace of mind” technologies and initiatives.

For starters, the company announced a partnership with Bell Mobility to simplify their mutual customers’ wireless communications. The Bell ‘Minute-Sharing with OnStar’ service plan allows customers who subscribe to both OnStar’s hands-free calling service on their GM vehicles and Bell Mobility cell phone services to integrate the two devices.

OnStar’s hands-free includes a voice-activated calling feature in a subscriber’s vehicle. Subscribers would typically use this feature when their handheld cell phone is lost, forgotten or low on battery. A requirement for this service is that the subscriber’s vehicle be hands-free calling-enabled (as the entire range of GM retail cars, trucks and SUVs will be in the U.S. and Canada by next year).

With the OnStar-Bell Mobility alliance the impetus to use hands-free calling will be much greater.

That’s because joint customers can forward their cell phone numbers to their OnStar-equipped cars while traveling to make or receive calls, use their cell phone calling plan minutes and other features that are part of their Bell Mobility packages, and receive a single bill for all handheld and in-vehicle calls.

“We did a lot of IT work with Bell Mobility to make this service seamless,” said Dave Mitchell, marketing manager at OnStar Canada based in Oshawa, Ont. He said heavy OnStar users will benefit the most from the shared plan, which has a flat fee of $18 per month: people who use more than 100 pre-paid OnStar minutes per month can cut their bills by about half by effectively combining two devices into one.

“Our customers [complain] there are too many phones in their lives,” said Chet Huber, president of OnStar, a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Motors (GM) Co. based in Detroit, explaining the reason for introducing the integrated service in Canada and in the U.S. in partnership with U.S. telecom giant, Verizon. States such as New York and Michigan have already banned handheld cell phone use in vehicles as a safety measure, and many other jurisdictions across North America are considering similar legislation.

With about four million OnStar subscribers in the U.S. and 250,000 in Canada, economies of scale exist to offer customers what they want: safer, integrated in-vehicle wireless services.

This partnership with wireless communications carriers is one among many OnStar telematics offerings that the company says make life easier for car owners/drivers.

Also, unlike other telematics products that may be bolted on a finished car – OnStar says its systems are embedded in the guts of the vehicle. And that, says Mitchell, is why OnStar works within the longer 3-4 year cycle typical in the car industry. He contrasts this with most other consumer electronics companies that operate on 16-month product development cycles.

Other examples of “embedded” capabilities include OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics, a service introduced last year that runs hundreds of diagnostic checks on subscriber vehicles’ four key operating systems, collects maintenance information and sends a personalized monthly e-mail to the owner. The report provides maintenance reminders based on the vehicle’s current odometer reading, remaining engine oil-life, warranties and so on.

OnStar also offers telematics services that reassure drivers there is help available if they are victims of an accident, a theft or are merely forgetful.

The remote door unlock service, for example, allows drivers who’ve locked their keys in their car to call a toll-free number to connect with an OnStar call centre advisor, who will send a cellular data call to the vehicle to unlock it remotely. If an air bag deploys in a car, an emergency signal is automatically sent to the OnStar centre.

An advisor will attempt to communicate with the occupants, and if there is no response, will contact the nearest emergency services provider. If a subscriber reports a stolen vehicle, an advisor can send a signal to the vehicle to get a location fix, track it and provide the information to the nearest police authority.

The company has also responded to service enhancement requests from stakeholders, in addition to customers, said Mitchell. In 2004, OnStar introduced the Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) service in response to requests from emergency medical services (EMS) providers.

In a car accident, the AACN service collects information about the crash such as severity, direction of impact, air bags deployed, multiple impacts and rollover, and automatically relays the information to the nearest EMS providers.

This type of service is critical in rural areas, where there may not be a passerby to report a crash, or local hospitals may not be equipped to treat certain types of severe injuries. Sixty per cent of car crash fatalities occur in rural areas, although only 20 per cent of all accidents occur in remote areas. “We have an entire department devoted to receiving and considering these types of new, useful OnStar service requests,” said Mitchell.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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