General Motors’ in-vehicle voice and data communications service provider, OnStar, is in the middle of a public relations nightmare in the US, with motorists concerned the system is an invasion of their privacy.
OnStar is a subscription-based service that incorporates a number of innovative features, including in-vehicle security, hands-free phone calling, turn-by-turn satellite navigation, automatic crash response and stolen vehicle tracking. The system relies on CDMA mobile phone voice and data communication as well as GPS technology. A recent email to subscribers outlining changes to OnStar’s policies has, however, sparked a massive uproar among some of the service’s five-million-plus members.
Among the controversial changes was a condition allowing OnStar to sell the data it collects, and another that some believed would give OnStar the ability to monitor vehicles even after the owners had unsubscribed from the service. OnStar say member’s information can be sold to third parties, but only in an anonymous, non-personal form. The changes will be implemented from December.
In an attempt to clarify the situation, OnStar has posted a video explaining what the system has the ability to do, and more importantly, what it cannot do. OnStar representatives spent much of last week on the phone, in internet forums, and on Facebook and Twitter trying to allay the concerns of subscribers.
The new terms and conditions allow OnStar to record a vehicle’s speed, location, seat belt status, odometer reading, and a number of other attributes, whether the car is running or not. The added accessibility makes the OnStar system’s traffic, information and rescue functions more effective than ever, although that’s probably little consolation to drivers who think Big Brother is watching them.
OnStar still does not have the ability to eavesdrop on drivers, however. The only time OnStar operators can hear what is being said in a vehicle is when the driver is in direct contact with them.
The service has plenty of promise. For example, the automatic crash response feature alerts OnStar operators if the airbags have been deployed on a vehicle, and gives them precise information on its location so emergency services can be dispatched almost immediately, potentially saving lives. The Stolen Vehicle Assistance features (Stolen Vehicle Tracking, Stolen Vehicle Slowdown and Remote Ignition Block) also promise to stop car thieves in their tracks.
Systems like OnStar are not currently available in South Africa, but like most new technologies, it is likely just a matter of time before a similar service is introduced by one of the larger manufacturers. If ‘Sync’ and their new Evos concept are anything to go by, we suspect that someone will be Ford. We’re also certain that Ford are watching the development of this story with keen interest, as we raised the issue of personal privacy with Ford’s Chief Technical Officer, Paul Mascarenas, at the preview of the Ford Evos Concept in Germany just last month.
What do you think of OnStar? Would you like to see a similar service available here in South Africa? Let us know in the comments section below.