OnStar has three subscription plans, ranging in cost from around $17 to $70 per month. You can access many of these services by pushing the blue OnStar button on the console and simply stating what you need. Others require you to use a toll-free number to call OnStar.
The Safe and Sound plan includes:
Automatic Notification of Air Bag Deployment - If your air bag is deployed, the advisor attempts to call you. If you do not reply, or if you report an emergency, the advisor will contact an emergency services provider.
Emergency Services - If you press the red button, OnStar immediately locates your car and contacts the closest emergency service provider.
Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance - If your car is stolen, an advisor can use the on-board GPS to track the car.
Thanks to a highly successful marketing campaign, OnStar claims 100 percent brand recognition in North America. It hasn't been as popular elsewhere, though. After offering OnStar service on Opels in Germany for several years with poor sales, OnStar Europe closed down in November 2005.
In July 2005, the Columbian division of GM began offering a similar service, called ChevyStar, with some of its Chevrolet models.
Remote Door Unlock - If you lock your keys in the car, OnStar can send a cellular data signal to the car's computers to unlock them.
OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics - Because it's hard-wired into the car's electrical system, the Vehicle Comm and Interface Module can also receive information about the status of systems like the engine, air bag and anti-lock brakes. The module checks these systems on a monthly basis, and then automatically sends a message to OnStar. If it's a severe problem, the OnStar advisor will let you know. You also receive an e-mail status report.
Access to Hands-Free Calling - OnStar offers two different cell phone plans. You can purchase blocks of minutes in advance, or you can subscribe to a Verizon Wireless plan. If you already use Verizon as your cell phone service, you can share minutes with the hands-free module and have calls forwarded to it.
Roadside Assistance - OnStar will call a towing company for you, or locate a provider who can bring you gas or change a flat tire.
AccidentAssist - You can call an advisor for help in figuring out the best way to handle an accident. The advisor will provide you with a step-by-step checklist of what to do, and can also call your insurance company for you.
Remote Horn and Lights - If you can't find your car in a parking lot, an advisor can activate your horn and lights.
Virtual Advisor - This service uses voice-activation and text-to-voice technology to provide subscribers with access to information such as:
- National, international and business news services
- Sports scores and updates
- Weather conditions for any U.S. ZIP Code or Canadian Postal Code
Can car thieves use OnStar?
Since OnStar can unlock your car doors remotely, some people think that thieves can do the same thing to steal your car. Unlike remote keyless entry fobs, which use RF signals, OnStar's unlock service uses its cellular network to send a signal to the module that controls the locking system. For OnStar to unlock your car, you must give the advisor your account number and PIN. Unless you share your PIN, you are the only one who can get OnStar to unlock your doors. This is also true for the vehicle location service -- OnStar will only track a car at the owner's request (or in some situations in cooperation with the police).
A user pre-sets his preferences at his OnStar account Web site (such as sports teams to follow or e-mail addresses to check), then presses the "white dot" or "phone" button on his OnStar console to access the Virtual Advisor using voice commands. The weather feature can use the GPS system to get local weather information for the vehicle's specific location. For example, if you want the Virtual Advisor to give you a weather report, you simply say "Get my weather" and the advisor reads the weather report for your area. Virtual Advisor uses pre-paid minutes and may not work with the Verizon plan, depending on the model of your car.
The Directions and Connections plan includes all of the above, plus:
RideAssist - If you can't drive, an OnStar Advisor will call a taxi.
Information/Convenience Services - The advisor can help you locate a specific business near your location, like a hotel or an ATM.
And finally, the Luxury and Leisure plan includes all of the Directions and Connections services, plus Personal Concierge Services. This service acts like a hotel concierge. OnStar maintains its own database of businesses searchable by name, type and location.
In addition, OnStar recently coordinated with XM Radio to provide bundled services. If your OnStar-equipped car also has a factory-installed XM Radio, an OnStar advisor can assist you with setting up your XM subscription. Both services use the same antenna.
Now, let's look at some of the controversy surrounding OnStar.