In a move that can be construed as either very comforting or very disturbing, depending on one's perspective, GM and OnStar announced today that they will offer a new technology called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown in 1.7 million 2009 model year vehicles.
The system, which is included in the one-year OnStar subscription that customers receive when buying an eligible 2009 model year vehicle, is activated when a customer reports a stolen vehicle to law enforcement. The subscriber then can call OnStar and request Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance. As long as the subscriber has not opted out of Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance, OnStar will locate the vehicle using GPS technology and provide its information to law enforcement.
Once police officers have seen the stolen vehicle, they can ask OnStar to slow the vehicle remotely. OnStar can then send a remote signal to the vehicle to reduce engine power, gradually slowing the vehicle, and preventing a dangerous high speed police chase.
On one hand, since most stolen vehicles are not recovered intact - if at all - it's nice to know that your car will make itself much easier for police to find. It's also reassuring that a pretty foolproof way to prevent police chases - at least of GM vehicles - has been developed. Generally, those hurt most by police chases are innocent bystanders, the police officers doing the chase, or the owner of the stolen vehicle - because they rarely end without significant damage to the stolen vehicle.
However, I have a few problems with this, some of them fundamental to the way GM markets its OnStar service. More and more GM models are featuring OnStar as standard equipment - either across the entire model range, or standard on upper trim levels. For instance, it's impossible to buy a new 2008 Corvette without OnStar. Some people have a big problem giving a third party the theoretical ability to track their vehicle's location and speed and don't want the service. These individuals have three choices: buy a different vehicle, probably from one of GM's competitors; go through the effort of disabling OnStar and removing the hardware (this is not easy to do, and will probably become even more difficult for 2009 model year vehicles, otherwise thieves will just disable OnStar); or buying the vehicle anyway and just living with the idea of OnStar having the ability to know where you are and how fast you're going.
GM isn't making OnStar standard in more and more vehicles out of the goodness of its corporate heart; rather, it's almost entirely financial (with a small intangible advertising benefit). You see, for every vehicle that GM sells with OnStar, even if it's "standard," they increase the vehicle's price by a few hundred dollars. Not only does this raise average transaction prices for GM, but also makes it easier to convert some of those first year "free" OnStar subscribers to annual paying customers.
GM's obsession with OnStar and its recurring revenue streams often cause the company to make shortsighted decisions to "protect" OnStar. One example of this is the lack of factory available Bluetooth interoperability in the all-new 2008 Cadillac CTS. GM figured that allowing owners to use the car's electronics to connect to their cell phone could jeopardize the OnStar hands-free calling feature, so it wasn't planned for the US launch of the vehicle, while European CTS models - where OnStar is not available - did get Bluetooth. A customer and critical uproar over this decision led GM to backtrack and offer Bluetooth as a dealer-installed accessory instead.
Another example of GM's OnStar myopia is the lack of availability in several of its midsize sedans. None of the vehicles on the Epsilon platform - the Pontiac G6 (released for the 2005 model year), Saturn Aura (released for the 2007 model year), or Chevrolet Malibu (released for the 2008 model year) have satellite navigation available as even an option. Instead, GM is happy to point customers to its OnStar Turn-by-Turn navigation service, which - for additional charges on top of the basic OnStar subscription - will show monochrome arrows on the radio display and verbally give the driver instructions. For those who have grown used to a color LCD map display in your vehicle, it's not the same thing.
I hope for GM's sake that the new OnStar feature has plenty of safeguards built in to ensure that only vehicles legitimately reported stolen by their owners are disabled/stopped, and that it's not misued or abused by anyone. The bottom line is, in my opinion, OnStar is a nice feature for those who want it, and this new feature is a nice addition to its capabilities. However, I don't believe that OnStar should be standard in any vehicle, even in those at higher trim levels like Corvettes or Cadillacs.