OnStar System Puts Telematics On The Map

March 31, 2003
Millions of drivers now take advantage of this interactive automotive security, convenience, and roadside-assistance infrastructure that promotes safer driving.

When the concept of telematics began to emerge in the early '90s, engineers at General Motors had a far-reaching vision: an interactive communications system that would provide safety, security, roadside assistance, and convenience to drivers any time of day or night, anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Such a system would deliver an array of services to a vehicle's occupants while helping the driver to maintain control of the vehicle. Its ultimate goal was to limit the amount of driver distraction for safer driving. What evolved in 1994 was an ambitious venture that would bring together three diverse companies—General Motors (GM) and its two subsidiaries, Hughes Electronics with its satellite communications experience and Electronic Data Systems (EDS) with its data-processing expertise. The next year, the infrastructure started to come together in a joint venture named OnStar, a wholly owned subsidiary of GM. A system based on the Global Positioning System (GPS) resulted, providing drivers with route directions, emergency assistance, up-to-the-minute stock quotes, e-mail, and other services—anytime, anywhere (see "How GPS And OnStar Work," p. 52). Hughes is no longer involved with OnStar, but EDS provides IT and Call Center assitance.

Officially launched via Cadillac at the 1996 Chicago Auto Show, OnStar was greeted with guarded optimism. It then ran $799 a year, plus dealer installation costs, which varied by as much as twice the service's price depending on the dealer. So although OnStar offered many of the features it offers today, they cost much more. Not surprisingly, OnStar's debut was somewhat sluggish.

GM later introduced this service as factory installed, which took advantage of production economies of scale, making for a more consistent and reliable service. It bundled OnStar's hardware and software into most GM vehicles and made it part of the vehicle purchase price beginning in 1999. You can now purchase the system under one of three plans, with the lowest-priced subscriber package costing $199 per year. Users simply need to have it activated on their vehicles.

OnStar's success so far can be measured by the sheer number of subscribers. At the end of 1997, there were only 1100 subscribers. Today, approximately 2.5 million subscribers use OnStar, and several thousand new users sign up each day. User statistics also capture the breadth of OnStar's reach. For instance, each month subscribers initiate about 700 airbag deployment notifications, some 500 stolen-vehicle requests, around 5000 emergency button presses, approximately 14,000 remote-diagnostic requests, 13,000 roadside assistance calls, 27,000 remote door-unlock requests, and 220,000 route support calls.

Two early OnStar pioneers are Walt Dorfstatter, GM's OnStar vice president of engineering, and Bruce Radloff, chief technology officer. Dorfstatter started out on the OnStar hardware side, while Radloff handled the information technology side. (Radloff was not employed at OnStar when the service was first offered.)

"What we did was converge three basic technologies—GPS, cellular communications, and automotive electronics," says Dorfstatter. "When we discussed this concept back in 1994, many people could have easily envisioned it, but the challenge was how to integrate all of these capabilities into an affordable end-to-end solution."

"When we started out, there were several challenges of converging many unassociated technologies like the IT and advisor's side, the vehicle's side, the satellite side," adds Radloff. "The service cannot work unless all of the links are merged together, and the quality of service is totally dependent on this."

"Factory installation really unleashed the cost-effectiveness of OnStar. We purposely throttled OnStar's rollout in the beginning. We knew that we couldn't take on the world early on," says Radloff. "So we targeted some very key car models at the time, particularly some of GM's high-end cars. We wanted to get it out there, do some experimenting, see if it was a set of services the consumer wanted, and then make appropriate adjustments to market demands."

By no means is OnStar the only system on the market. But it's acknowledged to be by far the leader due to the infrastructure and support it has built. Ford has a limited-availability system called RESCU (remote emergency services cellular unit) and VEMS (vehicle emergency messaging system). Volvo (part of Ford) has the On Call system. Mercedes-Benz offers the TeleAid and Command system with features similar to OnStar and a navigation system that now uses DVDs instead of CDs. But none of these possesses anywhere near OnStar's market share, largely because of GM's head start.

A CLOSER LOOK OnStar employs a three-button system (white, blue, and red) mounted either on the rear-view mirror or on the dashboard. Interactive hands-free communications takes place via a built-in cellular phone and the radio's speakers. The white-dot button is used for voice-activated cellular phone communications or connecting with the Virtual Advisor. The blue button connects the driver with a Call Center Advisor for help with a variety of services (Fig. 1). The red button is used for emergencies. A driver's personal identification number (PIN) or a code number is used to initiate some security services such as door unlocks and stolen-vehicle location requests (see "My Test Drive With OnStar," below).

Within the vehicle, a communications processor is located and tied to a bus, the car's radio, a remote GPS antenna, and a microphone located above the rear-view mirror, along with a cellular antenna that's mounted on the rear window (Fig. 2). Though OnStar would not specify the type of bus used, it is believed to be a CAN (controller-area network) bus. All cars and light trucks from 1996 to the present have been mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the OBD II (onboard diagnostics) Act to monitor the performance of the engine's major components and emission controls. Most OBD systems use the CAN bus because it's best suited for OBD II. Analog cellular-telephone communications are implemented instead of digital for maximum geographic coverage at an affordable end-user price. OnStar plans to offer digital and analog service later this year.

The system transmits at a mobile frequency of 824 to 855 MHz. The base transmitter operates from 824 to 900 MHz. This produces 3 W of output power using an antenna.

"We use a 3-W high-power phone, which is much more than the typical 0.6-W output used in handheld cellular phones," says Radloff. "That ensures that coverage is available in just about any geographic location a vehicle could conceivably be in. We have many instances where users have told us that they were unable to use their personal cell phones but could use OnStar."

Once contacted, the Call Center has the vehicle's location, vehicle-identification number, make, model year, and color and is ready to assist. Airbags on the vehicle come with sensors. Once the bags are activated, the sensors trigger a call to automatically notify the Call Center of a collision, which prompts the center to contact the vehicle, before contacting medical and emergency personnel, if necessary.

OnStar will introduce an advanced automatic crash notification (AACN) system on approximately 400,000 of its most popular 2004 vehicles, making it the first automaker to do so (Fig. 3). The phase-in of AACN into the GM vehicle fleet will continue over several years. The new system goes beyond the ACN system already in place on the airbags. By using a collection of strategically located sensors, AACN, through the OnStar system, automatically calls for help if the vehicle is involved in a moderate to severe front-, rear-, or side-impact crash, regardless of airbag deployment. It provides crash-severity information to the Call Center operator, who relays it to 911 dispatchers, helping dispatchers determine the type of emergency service required and how fast it's necessary.

Three different subscriber plans are available: the basic Safe & Sound plan for $199/year, Directions & Connections for $399/year, and the Luxury & Leisure plan for $799/year. The basic plan offers emergency services, automatic notification of airbag deployment, stolen-vehicle tracking (request made by the driver from outside the vehicle using a toll-free call), roadside assistance, remote diagnostics, door unlocking, vehicle alert (horns and light activation), accident/assistance, online concierge services, and hands-free voice-activated calling. The next-level plan adds route support, information/convenience services, and RideAssist help. The top plan institutes Personal Concierge Services.

ONSTAR'S SPREAD The GPS technology that OnStar is based on is becoming more pervasive. The system, available today on 44 GM model cars, is presently set up to work in the U.S. and Canada. This year, it will also be available on 18 European and Japanese automobile models under OEM agreements with Acura, Audi, Isuzu, Subaru, Volkswagen, and in Lexus under the Lexus Link brand.

OnStar has participated in a limited pilot program outside of the vehicle environment. The Internet Home Alliance is evaluating an OnStar at-home pilot project involving 71 households in the greater Detroit, Mich., area that were equipped with OnStar last July. The system allows remote monitoring and control of home security systems, safety systems (smoke and CO detectors), lighting, HVAC controls, interior cameras, door locks, phones, and garage door openers. Consumers in the pilot project can remotely access and control these systems from a PC, a wireless PDA, a wireless-access phone, or a vehicle. More on this project will appear on Electronic Design's Web site at www.elecdesign.com.

Where the OnStar concept will go next is anyone's guess, but its capabilities could open up many new applications. These include automated location-based traffic information services and the integration of vehicle diagnostic information services for consumers and automotive retailers.

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