Inside OnStar

  • 09-Jul-2008 01:58 EDT

OnStar command center personnel read large wall monitors that track weather, news events, sources of customers' calls, and workloads of advisors.

As vehicle information systems have become more complex to use, General MotorsOnStar has added more features yet kept just three intuitive buttons for the motorist—and puts an always-available human adviser at the other end. To date, the company has had 90 million “interactions” of all types with subscribers.

A sophisticated onboard electronics module in each car, and data centers at the other end of an OnStar button push, are the enablers. The car battery and a special external antenna combine cell reception. GPS (and now XM satellite radio) provides range and performance far exceeding handheld cell phones and GPS devices.

When introduced in 1996, OnStar had a tethered cellular phone handset, which quickly was replaced with the three-button system. A phone icon was for calls and traffic reports; an OnStar button for road service, driving directions, and anything else; and a red button to declare an emergency.

Originally, the module was dealer-installed and hard-wired to the body computer, airbag system, horn, and exterior light switches so it could remotely unlock doors, blow the horn and flash vehicle lights, and if airbags deployed, send a data message to OnStar. A second-generation module also connected to the diagnostic line, so if the check-engine light went on, the company could remotely read trouble codes and advise the motorist.  And with GPS, it could locate a stolen vehicle.

In 1999, the OnStar brand became a GM exclusive, with the in-car module added on the assembly line. The service is currently available across the board with one-year service included in the GM new-car purchase, and today’s five million subscriber list is expected to double by 2011. The company also still provides support services for the Lexus Link, a road service system for Lexus owners.

With assembly-line integration, module potential increased, but the company couldn’t just “pick up” services to offer.

“All the technology companies in the world...told us it [the feature content] was all set up,” OnStar President Chet Huber said, that all GM had to do was pick up everything and offer it. He said that virtually nothing actually was in that category and that OnStar had to invent all the systems, has filed for more than 400 patents (104 granted to date), and files a new one on the average of every six days.

Even calls to 911 required creating and regularly maintaining something that did not exist, Huber said—a database of more than 6000 jurisdictions, with the one phone number to call often dependent on which side of the street a car was stopped.

Verizon is the primary cellular carrier, with other carriers filling in, particularly for Canada. Mapping data are from Navteq and Tele Atlas, with everything (including point-of-interest information from other companies) integrated into the OnStar database.

About 3000 advisers at three call-in centers take up to 100,000 calls on a busy day in three languages (French, primarily for Canada, Spanish, and English). When the motorist calls to start a subscription, the language option is selected and a sophisticated routing system directs all calls to advisers speaking that language.

Supporting advisers are two data centers and a Detroit-based command center, which monitors weather, road blockages, news events that may affect traffic, and the distribution of work among advisers. If there is a major storm, OnStar determines if official evacuation routes have been established and has them ready to transmit. In addition to language, advisers are grouped by training specialties such as for emergency calls and accidents. Currently 95% of emergency calls are answered within 5 s.

When the driver hits the OnStar button, a voice-and-data call is placed. The data includes a “STID” (station ID, a telephonic version of a VIN) used at a data center to collect and display for the adviser all pertinent info­rmation about the car and driver ­including a GPS input for vehicle location. The services menu has been enlarged, partly within the in-car modules (an eighth generation ready now), and building in-house capabilities, to improve feature content on existing systems and thereby maintain subscriber loyalty.

Because the STID includes important details about the car, road service or emergency response personnel anticipate such issues as no spare tire (in Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky) and hybrid powertrain option in the Saturn Vue and Aura, Chevrolet Malibu and Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon SUVs. OnStar handles 29,000 calls for roadside assistance monthly.

Although the module notifies when the airbags deploy, it now also can call even if they do not, such as when chassis and body sensors detect an accident or rollover. The sensors provide computer inputs that can be used to detect angle or force of the accident, information that helps emergency service providers decide what they will be encountering, even if the occupants are unable to respond to a callback. The system now handles 2200 automatic crash responses monthly and 10,000 calls for emergency help (ill passenger, etc.).

Diagnostics now go far beyond the check-engine light. Originally, diagnostics were accessed from the UART (universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter), then the GM Class 2 bus (defined in SAE J1850). Today, although some Class 2 databuses remain, the high-, medium-, and low-speed CAN databuses used today provide much more information and accept more commands from the OnStar module.

Current modules tie in to databuses that cover powertrain, antilock brakes/traction control, and airbag systems, so they can do remote readings of about 1600 trouble codes, plus engine oil life and emissions monitors, and even the tire pressure. If the motorist signs up for it (as 3 million subscribers have done), OnStar sends a vehicle health report monthly that covers all those points plus any recall repairs that have not been made. In addition, about 61,000 calls are handled monthly for “instant” remote diagnosis, and if the motorist wants in-depth technical detail, transfers calls to GM’s Customer Assistance Center.

An adviser at first just read driving directions to the driver, and later modified the module to record them for playback. Today, turn-by-turn directions are shown in real time on the dashboard display in the driver’s selected language. Some 600,000 requests for driving directions are processed monthly.

Hands-free calling would seem to be a feature that motorists already have with pocket cell phones. But OnStar sells packages of minutes to 50% of subscribers, who are using them at a rate of 31 million minutes monthly. The convenience of just pressing the phone icon and speaking the phone number has been popular.

Not all convenience features catch on. Concierge service (restaurant reservations, theater tickets, etc.) did not engender customer enthusiasm and was dropped.

Though it began in 1996 as an analog cellular system, OnStar prepared for digital when a 2002 U.S. FCC decision signaled the phaseout of analog by the end of 2007. Digital retrofit kits are available for most GM vehicles since late 2002.

OnStar pays GM for parts, wiring and assembly line labor, and services the one-year subscription, but it receives a per-vehicle fee from GM and holds subscription renewal income. Diagnostic data are furnished to GM reliability/warranty engineering at no extra charge at this time.

For future applications, OnStar is looking at new feature content to keep the subscribers “re-upping.”

The stolen-vehicle-location feature will be markedly enhanced this fall, with a depowering function that will appear on 1.7 million selected 2009 models with the eighth-generation module. If the driver reports the car stolen to OnStar, the company locates the vehicle—but only for the police. When police think the vehicle is in sight, a remote flash of the exterior lights confirms the identification.

Upon police request, the throttle can be remotely deactivated, slowing the car. Breaking the antenna would “not necessarily stop us,” said Walter Dorfstatter, Executive Director of Engineering. The slowdown is intended to avoid the dangers of high-speed chase.

OnStar, which now receives 700 stolen-vehicle reports monthly, estimates there are 30,000 high-speed chases in the U.S. annually, of which 25% result in injury, and a total of 300 deaths.

A “here and now” talk-through program is in the conceptual stage for police, fire, and other emergency services if they are unsure about what to do with a GM hybrid.

Company execs recognize that real-time traffic would be a “killer application,” because in theory it could monitor subscribers’ cars to determine traffic speed on key routes. However, Timothy Cox, Chief Information Officer, said this would be a massive undertaking and require adjustments for privacy concerns. At present, the push-the-phone button for traffic reports provides little more than news radio stations offer.

OnStar’s first attempt at expansion outside North America launches next year: a joint venture in China. Mandarin is the language, and the software is being tailored to differences in driving regulations, forms of address, and language display formats.

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