Electronic Design

My Test Drive With OnStar

The best way to evaluate a product or service is to try it. That's precisely what I did thanks to GM's graciousness in providing me with a 2003 Cadillac CTS vehicle fully equipped with OnStar. Despite some relatively minor hiccups, my experience with OnStar was a joyride.

Two of the most interesting features were Personal Calling and the Virtual Advisor, both offering hands-free voice-recognition dialing with an interactive automated operator. Numbers dialed are displayed on the OnStar dashboard screen. Personal Calling, a prepaid service with no extra monthly fees, uses either name tags or digit dialing. Let's say you want to call your office. Initially, you select the word "office" to represent your office phone number. Then, when you say "office," the office number is automatically dialed.

But I had the most fun with the Virtual Advisor. This interactive system can tell you just about anything: news, sports, local weather and traffic conditions (with respect to the vehicle's location), financial information, etc. It's based on a personal Web profile that you develop for yourself. Also, OnStar's near-exact vehicle-location capability is amazing. I asked the OnStar Call Center about my location numerous times, at various street and highway locations, and was told my true location within half a block!

While driving on a highway, I called the OnStar Call Center to report that my vehicle's "Check Engine" warning light came on and asked them to perform remote diagnostics. After checking, they reported that no problem was found. The warning light had not really come on—I just made up the story to test the system.

A word about some of the hiccups: The voice-recognition technology used in OnStar is less than perfect. In many instances, the automated operator either did not understand the words, phrases, and numbers I uttered, or mistook them for something else. But this was quickly corrected by saying "cancel" or "stop playing," and then repeating the procedure. Though OnStar uses state-of-the-art voice-recognition technology, the company is working to improve this aspect for future systems. As a comparison, I test drove my neighbor's Mercedes-Benz car with its TeleAid system, and its hands-free voice-recognition dialing feature had the same problems.

Also, the people I called via the system sounded loud and clear to me, but to some on the receiving side, it sounded like I was in an echo chamber. Nevertheless, they understood me. Perhaps this area can additionally use some improvement.

Remote unlocking and the way OnStar can set off the horn and flash the lights when you've lost your car in a parking lot are two handy features. But the time it took to perform these functions varied from one or two up to 10 minutes, which according to OnStar is quite normal.

Overall, my personal experience was quite positive. I would highly recommend this system to anyone.

See associated figure.

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