General Motors pioneered car communication technology when it offered its OnStar service in 1996. (OnStar is a subsidiary of GM.) Then, it was touted exclusively as a safety feature. A GPS receiver tracks the car’s location. If the car gets in a collision or the driver pushes the OnStar button, a powerful built-in cell phone calls an OnStar operator. All the while, the system automatically transmits mechanical information about the car. The operator can assess the damage and alert local emergency personnel to respond to the scene.
These days, OnStar does more than answer the call for help. Although users can still talk to live operators, the system has become much more automated. Subscribers can download iPhone and Android apps that allow them to unlock and start the car remotely. OnStar will connect via Bluetooth to smart phones. If text messages and Facebook posts are received on a connected phone, OnStar can read them aloud. It can also give turn-by-turn directions.
If a subscriber’s car is stolen, the OnStar system will track the vehicle and even slow it down so that police can catch the thief.
Subscriptions to OnStar range from $200 per year for the basic safety plan to about $300 per year for the internet-to-speech features, hands-free calling and navigation. The first year of service comes free with the purchase of a new GM car.