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How OnStar Works

OnStar Basics

General Motors began offering OnStar in 1996 as an automotive safety tool -- a way for people to get help easily and quickly in an emergency. Instead of trying to find your cell phone, you push a button on a console and are instantly connected with an OnStar advisor. The advisor can pinpoint your exact location and relay your problem to emergency services. If you're in an accident, your car can "tell" OnStar without you having to do a thing.

Most people still associate OnStar with emergencies, but today's OnStar offers a host of services, from helping you find a good local restaurant to giving you the latest stock quotes.

OnStar is a telematics service. The word telematics is a combination of telecommunication and informatics: a telematics service is one that provides information to a mobile source, like a cell phone, PDA or car. Today telematics often describes vehicle systems that combine GPS and cellular technologies with onboard electronics. They can include safety, communication, vehicle diagnostic and entertainment features.

Photo courtesy OnStar Corporation
OnStar rearview mirror panel

Cars equipped with OnStar have a small panel located in the rearview mirror, the dashboard or an overhead console, depending on the model. The blue OnStar button allows you to contact a live or virtual advisor. The red button with the cross on it is for emergencies, and the phone or "white dot" button allows you to make phone calls just as if you were using a cell phone.

The only way to get OnStar is to buy a car that already has the system installed. The cost of OnStar depends on the make and model of the car. Once you purchase the car, all you have to do is press the blue "OnStar" button on the console to subscribe to one of the service plans. OnStar is available on more than 50 models of GM brands, including Chevrolet, Pontiac, GMC, Buick, Saturn and Hummer as well as other manufacturers such as Audi®, Isuzu® and Volkswagen®. Some models come standard with OnStar, while others include OnStar as part of an add-on "safety" package. GM plans to make OnStar a standard feature on all of its 2007 vehicles.

In February 2006, OnStar announced plans to incorporate a real-time driving navigation system, called Turn by Turn, in select Buick and Cadillac models. An additional 1 million 2007 GM models will include Turn by Turn, and by 2010, it will be a standard service on all cars equipped with OnStar.

Next, we'll learn about the technology behind OnStar.

OnStar History
OnStar began as location-based technology developed by a team at ExtremeBlue, an IBM internship program for graduate students in software development and business administration. GM introduced the service in 1996 as an option on some Cadillac models. Early OnStar consoles came with a handset; the hands-free, three-button console became standard in 2001.

OnStar's cellular system was analog at first, then progressed to analog/digital-ready. Most OnStar systems are now dual mode, with the capability to use both analog and digital communications systems. By 2008, GM plans to make all-digital cellular systems. Currently there are no plans to make upgrade packages available for older, analog-only models.