Aiming for a Star risks taking your feet off the Earth


A quick tour of the new OnStar European command centre in Luton, England, sounded echoes of the well-established global base of the Renaissance Center in Detroit except, as yet, without the sort of manpower the older centre can boast.

Yet, the ultimate initial launch staffing target of around 70 call centre advisors clearly illustrates GM’s conviction that the OnStar service will find a happy home among customers of its Vauxhall and Opel European brands.

And the service provides most of the functionality you will find in the US including:

·         24/7 call-up assist within a 15 second timeframe;

·         Sat-nav downloads to voice requested destination;

·         Remote vehicle diagnostics on request;

·         In-car wi-fi hotspot connection for up to seven devices;

·         Connects to smartphones via both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay;

·         Rapid breakdown vehicle recovery;

·         Up-to-date monthly vehicle diagnostics reports;

·         Privacy, no GPS tracking, mode;

·         Emergency accident call-out which overrides the privacy setting.

It will also soon feature a remote connection smartphone app that allows:

·         Contact OnStar from anywhere;

·         Call up important vehicle data such as oil life or tyre pressure;

·         Remotely lock or unlock the car;

·         Locate the car online;

·         Sound the horn and flash the lights;

·         Download destinations to the in-car navigation system;

·         Manage the vehicle’s built-in Wi-Fi hotspot settings

With the European service having to cope with a coverage spanning 13 different countries, providing advisors able to handle up to eight different languages, the investment by GM is not insubstantial and Vauxhall-Opel executives are hoping for a 70% take-up from both corporate and individual customers.

We had the opportunity to test the fledgling service ahead of its launch this summer with a simple tour through the Bedfordshire countryside.

Journalists were told to simply press the blue OnStar button, read over an address to an advisor and then the sat-nav would download the address to the Vauxhall Insignia 2016 prototype test mule and away they went.

However, one likely-lad chose to test the advisor’s capabilities by offering only part of the pre-prescribed address, much as a normal user may do, only to have a destination downloaded that delivered him to a similarly named hotel, in a similarly named street in an entirely different town.

Perhaps more worrying was that even on the correct route, the car’s factory loaded maps were already out of date and failed to recognise a roundabout reconstruction completed to the M1 main arterial highway some six weeks earlier.

And here’s the rub – while the control centre affords the customer with a friendly voice to help with a multitude of personal requests, that advisor is still unable to update the car’s sat-nav map which, naturally, is obsolete the moment the car drives out of the factory.

That said, the service will be available right across the Vauxhall-Opel range and, where not a standard feature, will cost just £395 as a bolt-on service with, in all cases, the first year free of additional charge.

And after that first year, the ‘rental’ charge is pegged at just £79 and, considering that breakdown cover with the AA is included, makes a very convincing value proposition for European customers.

Company executives also told journalists that they are in negotiations with several insurance companies and hope to announce special discounted insurance packages for OnStar customers by the end of 2015.

Much is also made of the superfast 4G connectivity via an oversize roof aerial array that is claimed to be many times better at finding a GPS signal than a normal smartphone.

While that sounds great, in practice I was completely unable to get a hot-spot hook-up of two wireless tablets in the test mule on the way back to Vauxhall’s HQ. No doubt the old nugget ‘ah, it’s only a pre-production model’ would be rolled out to cover this one off.

Glitches apart, the OnStar service does make a powerful marketing tool probably more for the corporate fleet buyer who will appreciate the constantly monitored car diagnostics to help plan servicing schedules and keep cars on the road and completing business.

For the private European customer, having to pay for an early form of eCall with the emergency response service might seem a bit hard to swallow in view of the European Commission’s regulations demanding all cars built after 31 March 2018 will have this facility built in for free.

And for British consumers, renowned for their reserve and acute reluctance to ‘put anyone out’ by calling a complete stranger outside of an emergency situation, it’s difficult to see how much of a lure the OnStar service will be.

But it’s the old-school use of factory installed on-board maps that could pose the biggest obstacle for many users.

Against the backdrop of competitors, including BMW and Audi using constantly updateable maps via Google Earth, the service could be seen as some as being ‘stuck’ in the 1990s where it was born.

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