An out-of-body experience 

Rapping with GM's new OnStar technology

Rapping with GM's new OnStar technology

"Hello, Mr. Stengel. How may I be of service?” So stunned was I to be addressed by a car in this way that I didn’t know exactly how to respond. The voice was cheerful and earnest—determined to please. I was alone, with both hands on the wheel. I cleared my throat. “Uh-hmm...where am I, please?” That’s really the best I could do, even though I knew full well that I was heading away from town on Granny White Pike, south of Otter Creek.

A faint “beep” from somewhere over the rear seat was followed by the reply. “You are heading south it Granny White Pike? I see an intersection with Old Hickory Boulevard, oh, about two miles ahead. You should be approaching Oman Drive to your left in a few moments. Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Stengel?”

What, I wondered, is the proper manner of address for conversing with your car? “I guess that’s all I really need to know right now,” I said. “Thanks.” “Thank-you for calling OnStar, Mr. Stengel. Have a nice rest of the day.” The voice disappeared behind an electronic click as Oman Drive streamed past the driver’s-side window.

General Motors’ new OnStar communications system is an uncanny blend of the bizarre and the banal. Judging merely by appearances, the ’97 Cadillac DeVille Concours I test-drove recently betrayed nothing unusual beneath its slab-sided, monolithic styling. Slipping inside, it feels like you’re stepping into the tastefully beige, sunken living room of one of those Gulf Coast condos overlooking the beach. The cellular phone wired into the center console initially suggests something more like mere luxury than outright wizardry.

Then there are those two little paddles inside the left rim of the steering wheel. Flicking the upper proboscis prompts a pleasantly feminine, disembodied voice to announce, “Ready.” Suddenly, it feels as if you’re not in a typical Cadillac driving down a typical street in a typical Nashville neighborhood. Suddenly, in fact, you start thinking that maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. If, at this point, you say the word “Dial” to no one in particular, the lovely numen responds, “Number?” For each digit you announce, the reward is a confirming display at the lower edge of the instrument panel. If shyness leads to an inaudible enunciation, the voice encourages you to try again: “I’m sorry?” she says until you master your self-consciousness. With the word, “Call,” your synthetic factotum takes her cue. “Dialing,” she says—and does.

All of this hands-free calling and voice-recognition banter is but a preamble to OnStar’s really big show. It’s just a clever by-product, really, of the system’s phone-based communication and tracking system—in short, a fancy way to make a traditional person-to-person call. By contrast, the procedure for activating OnStar’s mind-boggling blend of satellite surveillance and customer service is almost mind-numbingly banal. At any time of day or night, simply depress a small, dedicated key on the phone’s handset...and wait. Beep-beep-beep go the digits; sizzle, spackle, and whir go the connection and log-in, until once again you hear the greeting, still solicitous but now very human. “Hello, Mr. Stengel. How may I be of service?”

Unlike certain automotive navigational systems currently available—notably from BMW and Acura—OnStar’s dependence on GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite technology is only partial. An OnStar car sports no fancy electronic map to lure your eyes away from the road. There is only the voice of your “OnStar representative” brimming with unflappable patience. As anti-climatic and retro-tech as this human-to-human “interface” may seem, it is actually the key to OnStar’s allure: The system is user-friendly par excellence and, yes, idiot-proof.

It is also much more than meets the eye—or ear. As GM’s newest freestanding operating division, OnStar actually provides a raft of services besides navigational assistance. Indeed, the more passive aspects of the system are arguably the more valuable. For instance, in the event of a crash that deploys any of the front or side airbags, OnStar will automatically call “home” to pinpoint the car’s location. Should a return call to the car go unanswered, a “real human” will contact the nearest 911 emergency provider and direct assistance to the location indicated. This ability to trace a car’s whereabouts is just as helpful in non-emergency situations, like when you need a tow truck out on some dirty back road. And should your OnStar car ever be stolen, the integrated security system issues a silent beacon that supplies a “homing” trace to police and allows “telepathic” control of the car’s electronics—including the ability to lock a thief in the car.

Conversely, numskull moves like locking your keys in the car or forgetting where you parked in a crowded airport lot don’t even give the system pause. From a pay or cell phone, you can request remote unlocking of the doors or the automotive equivalent of a hoot ’n’ holler with flashing lights and a honking horn. Then, for settling jangled nerves, there’s the promise of hotel and restaurant recommendations—with directions—available ’round-the-clock.

For ’97, OnStar is installed in Cadillac models only; but next year, it will expand to 24 additional models, including at least one vehicle from each GM division. Price is $895, plus a dealer installation fee that should hover around $300-$400. In addition to securing cellular phone service, users must also subscribe to OnStar for $22.50 per month.

Despite the bristling array of high technology bundled into the OnStar service, the system prompts a somewhat ironic feeling that there’s not much to play with. Once your OnStar “representative” tells you where you happen to be, well, there you are. In that way, it’s kind of like insurance—the responsible thing to do, but sorta stuffy too. At the same time, for us members of the post-Jetsons generation, it’s hard to recall another instance when such technological power—and potential—appeared so quietly, almost stealthily, in such an advanced state of working order. At some stage in your virtual conversation with an OnStar car, you’ll likely develop a sneaking suspicion that it’s holding out on you a little, playing coy with responses to questions no one has even thought of yet.

Off the floor

Paper or plastic?

After months of delicate negotiations, H.G. Hill Realty Co., the real estate division of Nashville’s H.G. Hill grocery chain, has bagged BMW of Nashville as the lead tenant for what it hopes will become an automotive super-site near 100 Oaks Mall. According to Russell Stover, general manager for the dealership, the new, larger facility is tentatively scheduled to open in April or May 1998 near the I-65 interchange at Powell and Armory Avenues. The dealership’s present location on Murfreesboro Road will remain the home of VW of Nashville, which currently shares the site.

H.G. Hill Realty Co., together with Nashville’s Southeast Venture Corp., will develop and build the facility for lease to Chattanooga-based Bowers Transportation Group, which in October 1996 purchased the local BMW franchise previously known as Superior Motors. Jimmy Granbery, vice president for H.G. Hill Realty, calls the new dealership “a multimillion dollar development, encompassing 31,000 square feet of building space on approximately five acres.” Local real estate sources interpret that to represent a $2.5 million to $3 million project, at least. BMW’s Stover expects that the enlarged dealership will “virtually double its sales within the first year due to additional allocations” of cars from the manufacturer.

According to Granbery, the new home of BMW of Nashville is but the first element of an 18.5-acre master plan that may well develop into an automotive sales and service complex in the 100 Oaks area. He cites the growing nationwide popularity of the “auto mall concept,” and he admits having held preliminary discussions with certain of the new, publicly traded used-car chains that are attempting to revolutionize the used-car business. “I don’t have anything else to announce just yet,” he says, “but there’s definitely more to come.”

Ich bin ein Kruiser

Not content to let Harley-Davidson corner the cruiser market with its state-of-the-art ’50s technology, BMW hopes to box its way into the hearts and minds of America’s side-street showboaters with its new boxer-based (i.e. opposed-twin engine) R1200C cruiser bike. The first one in town just arrived last week at Bloodworth Motorsports, but it’s only available for test rides and order-taking. David Bloodworth expects customer deliveries to begin in early August. The Beemer-Kruiser is a Schwarzenegger-flavored blend of retro/futuro-styling, accented by trademark bits of BMW engineering wizardry. The combination of Telelever front suspension and single-sided shaft drive sets this bike apart—for better or worse—from all the other cruiser clones in this crowded segment.

No-o-o smokin-n-n’

Goaded by California’s unrelenting advance toward zero-emissions vehicles, Honda will be the first automaker to distribute nationwide a certified Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV). (California’s LEV standard is 70 percent lower than federal requirements for smog-inducing non-methane organic gases.) Honda’s new clean-burn, four-cylinder motors will find their way into 65 percent (or 240,000) of the company’s ’98 Accord LX and EX models, which are built in Ohio. Upscale Accord V6 and low-end DX models will not be affected. Despite giving noxious gases a good scrubbing, the new LEV motor boosts horsepower by 15 percent (to 150 HP) while still managing 25 to 30 miles to the gallon. A Honda spokesman says the company is “committed to maintaining the same price range with the new Accord.”

Don’t get mad...

...get mellow. Congressional hearings last week exposed “road rage” as a primary culprit in highway injuries and death. As safety engineers conceive ever more elaborate—and expensive—combinations of air bags, seat belts, crumple zones, and radar bumpers, perhaps its worth considering a federal mandate to equip every auto with Muzak, Prozac, and rose-colored windows.

Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to


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