15 September 2010

GM's OnStar service to become Facebook friendly

USA Today

DETROIT — General Motors' OnStar telecommunications service plans to expand from a safety and security feature into a system that also includes entertainment features and will provide new ways to link drivers to their cars.

Details — including an introduction date and fees — are being finalized, but the new-generation OnStar should allow drivers to do such things as update Facebook status and listen to text messages read aloud while driving.

The idea is to compete directly with Ford Motor's popular Sync system — introduced in 2007 and now, Ford says, installed on about 70% of its vehicles. At the same time, OnStar would continue offering safety and security features that have been its signature since its debut in 1996.

Sync, meantime, has been moving to incorporate OnStar-like safety features, such as using the driver's cellphone to automatically call 911 if the car's air bags deploy. Ford is adding voice-controlled mapping and directions from the navigation system.

Car owners usually must pay extra to have Sync or OnStar. Ford says its studies show that people are three times more inclined to buy a Ford Motor vehicle once Sync is explained to them.

"It's an extremely profitable business, but clearly the space is changing," says Chris Preuss, head of OnStar.

When it was launched, OnStar offered drivers the ability to talk to operators who could, much like a hotel concierge, make restaurant reservations or give verbal directions. It grew into a safety and security system aimed at drivers who wanted the reassurance of knowing there was someone who could help unlock the car if a child was trapped inside or would alert 911 if the car was in an accident.

The updated OnStar will let drivers connect with their vehicles through a smartphone application. That would allow drivers to start the car remotely, unlock or lock it from afar, and check for mechanical or electronic problems.

GM is opening OnStar to independent software developers, encouraging them to create applications that could be uploaded into vehicles. The catch is that the apps must work with voice controls.

Distracted driving is a safety hot-button. Voice-activated OnStar and Sync can help keep a driver's hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. But the systems also are criticized as simply more distractions.

Preuss says the new OnStar will help, not hurt, "if we can make this crisp enough and easy to use."

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