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September 27, 2011

OnStar FMV: A Concierge Service For Your Vehicle

OnStarThisChryslerFord05.jp In this age of high-tech vehicles with Bluetooth, computers, USB hubs and navigation systems, it's hard to remember how revolutionary GM's OnStar system was when it was introduced 15 years ago. Early commercials for the service depicted the kind of situations that pop up in my nightmares: getting stuck on a dark, deserted highway, or driving into a head-on collision.

I was a new mom at the time, when just 13% of Americans had mobile phones. A service that would allow you to get help with the push of a button was very appealing to me. But it was 10 years before I was in the market for a new car. By 2006, OnStar had added mobile phone connectivity and navigation to its menu of services -- but other automakers were offering those options on their vehicles, too. 

Today's car shoppers have a lot of new and exciting options, and if I'd thought about OnStar at all in recent years, it was to wonder if it was still relevant. And then I learned that GM had introduced a new standalone OnStar product, that would enable anyone to enjoy the service -- even in cars that weren't manufactured by General Motors.

GM_OnStar_04 OnStar FMV is an add-on that replaces your vehicle's rearview mirror with one sporting the familiar OnStar Blue and red emergency buttons. It also gives your car all the core features of factory-installed OnStar, including Bluetooth connectivity, 24/7 emergency services, roadside assistance, turn-by-turn navigation and stolen vehicle location assistance. 

Using OnStar FMV

My test vehicle was a Jeep Cherokee with the OnStar FMV rearview mirror already installed. The only indication that the device was an aftermarket addition was a small black wire leading from the back of the mirror to the top of the windshield, and you had to be looking for it in order to see it.

Pairing the device with a phone via Bluetooth was very easy, but connecting them on subsequent occasions took several minutes, which I found confusing at first. 

The speaker phone and voice recognition functions are stellar. It picks up the voices of passengers as well as drivers, without fading or distortion; folks on the other end of the conversation did not know they were on handsfree speaker.

I really liked how simple and intuitive the OnStar's commands are. I am a huge fan of Ford's Flex system, which understands something like 10,000 different commands. But every time I drive a Flex-equipped vehicle, I find myself faced with a huge learning curve, because I can never remember which one to use or what the syntax is. With OnStar, all I needed to learn was "Bluetooth," "Voice," "Dial," and "Goodbye." 

Getting Around via OnStar Navigation

With the advent of computerized GPS systems, I did not expect to love OnStar's navigation as much as I did. But I soon discovered that there's still a lot to be said for having a human touch. With OnStar, getting directions is as simple as pressing the blue button and telling the "OnStar Advisor" on the other end where you want to go.

The Advisors reminded me of a hotel concierge. They greeted me by name and asked what my needs were, then chatted a bit while they searched for the destination information, which was then downloaded into my vehicle's OnStar system. Turn by turn directions are then delivered to you audibly as you drive.

People who are very visual may miss having a map, especially in an unfamiliar city. However, I found OnStar to be way easier than other GPS nav systems, which force you to be very specific and then scroll through a bunch of options that may not be right the first time around, depending upon what you punched into the system in the first place.

With OnStar, I could offer an address if I had one, or a business by name -- or simply ask for directions to the nearest hardware store (or whatever I was looking for). OnStar's Advisors were friendly, fast and courteous. 

It's nice to be able to interact with a human, but do keep in mind that there remains a chance of human error. And just as I sometimes get a weird result when I punch in an address on a computerized GPS system, that can also happen to your OnStar Advisor. I discovered this when I asked one for directions to a particular business and the Advisor first directed me to one that was 30 miles away instead of the one that was closest. Fortunately, the Advisor told me where she was sending me before proceeding with the download, so I was able to correct her ("I want the one in Canoga Park, not Los Angeles"). And I didn't have to try punching in different combinations of zip codes and street names, as I have had to do with other systems.

The turn by turn instructions themselves are delivered in a manner that corresponds with the way I drive, where after giving an instruction the system tells you what the next one will be and how far along that will occur, so I can anticipate things like when to switch lanes. 

Other OnStar Services

I also made use of OnStar's Virtual Advisor weather and traffic reports, which were timely and accurate.

But the one OnStar function I did not test was the one that got my attention 15 years ago: Emergency services, which kick in automatically if you are involved in a crash. You can also access emergency help by pressing the mirror's red button. Let's just say that while driving the test vehicle, I felt secure in the knowledge that if I did get into an accident, help would be easy to find... and I'm really glad I didn't have the need for it.

Pricing and Installation

OnStar FMV is currently available for purchase nationally at Best Buy and Fry's Electronics stores, as well as a number of other retailers that are listed on the service's website. The suggested retail price of the OnStar FMV unit is $299, and the company estimates that installation will run from $50-$100.

Monthly pricing for OnStar service runs from $18.95 (for the Safe & Sound emergency and security plan) to $28.90 (for the Directions & Connections plan, which includes all the Safe & Sound features, plus unlimited turn-by-turn navigation services).

Since I've been getting by with the cheapest GPS unit I could find (a few hundred and then I'm done), this seemed too rich for my budget. But my sister -- who has two adult children -- thinks it's a bargain for the peace of mind it would give her to install it in her kids' cars. I guess it all depends on what your needs are.

I have to admit: I liked having all that personal service. This is something I'll be thinking about the next time I need directions.

PHOTO CREDIT: © GM Corp.

2010by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles, the Yahoo! Motherboard and her personal site, SoCal Mom.

 
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