3 Reasons OnStar Must Improve In Order To Survive

By Jason Lancaster

Ford’s recent decision to include 911 assistance in all their Sync-equipped vehicles as a no-charge feature could very well be the beginning of the end for GM’s OnStar program. Here’s why:

1. There’s a new standard for vehicle electronics. It’s no longer enough to have a nice car stereo with a fancy GPS system. Consumers can buy a $300 smartphone that has voice recognition, Internet access, GPS navigation, and an array of fancy and useful tools that practically free. Ford’s Sync – and other systems like it – will soon become the minimum standard for in-vehicle electronics. A basic feature of ALL of these systems will be full integration with consumer cell phones. Basically, your car and your phone will be able to share data and communicate with each other in the very near future (think 18-36 months, depending on the manufacturer).

2. GPS locators are cheap. Again, you only have to look at a cheap smartphone to realize that GPS units good enough to determine your location are inexpensive enough to “throw-in” on a new car. While these units won’t be able to tell you where to go (that requires a lot of software, a touchscreen, and a better quality unit) these toss-in GPS units will be good enough to pinpoint your location within a few meters after a crash.

3. Every vehicle will soon have all the components necessary to replicate OnStar. Once you have a vehicle with on-board GPS and a phone that’s automatically connected to your car, accident assistance (which is probably OnStar’s biggest feature) is nothing more than some simple software. How hard is it really to program a car to respond to an accident by:

  1. Determining the exact position of the vehicle using the on-board GPS locator.
  2. Connecting to a consumer’s smartphone and instructing that phone to transmit some data.
  3. Sending co-ordinates and a status update to an automated system which will then automatically forward that data to local authorities.

While there are some loopholes in this system – not all consumers will have smarthphones (only that seems really hard for me to imagine) and sometimes the GPS fix won’t be accurate because of damage or conditions. Still, it’s going to be FREE.

How Can OnStar Survive?

When you take away OnStar’s automatic accident alert feature, what do you have left? Concierge services (i.e. “where is the closest gas station“) and vehicle communication services, i.e. “I locked my keys in my car” and “tell me what maintenance needs to be done.”

The concierge services are available right now today with any smartphone, so they’re not going to be enough to save OnStar. The vehicle communications are unique right now, but will they be unique in 18-36 months? If my car can already “talk” to my smartphone, how long until some programmer comes up with an “app” that will let me unlock my car using my phone (or someone else’s phone)? The same thing goes for maintenance needs, etc.

In my mind, the only way OnStar can justify their monthly service fee in the future is if they begin to offer more features. Here are some ideas OnStar needs to consider:

1. A free plan that includes accident alerts and then offers the concierge services on a per-instance price – i.e., every time you ask for directions or request your doors to be unlocked, OnStar bills your credit card for $2.99-$9.99.

2. A premium plan that offers unlimited concierge services PLUS some sort of automated maintenance scheduling. How cool would it be if your car automatically contacted your local dealership when an oil change was coming up? Imagine if you got in your truck and it told you that you had an appointment for an oil change on Saturday at 10:30am?

3. A data plan that turns my vehicle into an entertainment system with an Internet connection. It might sound crazy right now, but my guess is that 5-10 years from now our kids will be downloading movies and playing online games while we drive down the road. If OnStar included some sort of high-bandwidth internet connection, I could use it to facilitate a lot of entertainment options…everything from streaming videos to the kids to downloading my wife’s iTunes.

Bottom line – OnStar execs: it’s time to start thinking about major changes because your system won’t survive the decade as currently constructed. Also, you might also want to tune-up your resumes.

Thoughts? Am I all wet?

Author Information

Jason Lancaster is the founder of TundraHeadquarters.com, a website dedicated to Toyota Tundra accessories, news, and information.


  1. Matt says

    So true, Jason. It won’t become commonplace for many years, but we’ll all have access to the technology provided we keep buying new cars or buy costly add-on technology after the sale.

    Yes, the Google Maps feature is handy, but as you said it is already something you have on your smart phone. Car technology is converging with our personal technology, rendering some of these older systems pointless in the long run I suppose.

  2. says

    Matt – I think that you’re right in that SOME people will be downloading videos and music to their cars in a matter of months. My guess is, however, it will take a few years before we see that behavior on a large scale…but here’s to hoping I’m dead wrong about that! :-)

    As for GM’s deal with Google, good for them. My smartphone already does that, however, so they’re going to have to do more to get my interest! :-)

  3. says

    Jason, I believe kids will be downloading movies, songs and other stuff in a matter of months, not years. The technology is already in place to do that and more.

    BTW, I received some updated news from GM regarding OnStar. Take a look at this:

    OnStar and Google have reached an agreement that will let OnStar users search for and identify destinations using Google Maps. Drivers can then send these destinations to the Turn-by-Turn Navigation Service in their vehicles in order to get directions. This new feature, OnStar eNav, will be available through Google Maps at the end of the month.

    Here is the related link: