A Smooth Ride

Smart cars that dispatch emergency help and purchase hard-to-get tickets

Imagine driving late at night in a part of town totally unfamiliar to you. Suddenly you’re lost and completely clueless about which way to turn. So, you push a small button on your rearview mirror. A voice responds, “Hello, Mrs. John Doe. You’re driving a forest green, 2000 Cadillac Seville, license plate 12345; you’re located on ABC Street at the corner of XYZ Drive; you’re presently in a stationary position; how may I help you?” You explain that you are lost. Not only does the voice on the other end give you directions but points out the nearest gas station.

Welcome to OnStar’s in-vehicle safety, security, and information system. OnStar, headquartered in Troy, Michigan, combines Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology and wireless communications to link a driver and vehicle with a call center, where agents (or advisors) are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer real-time personalized help. While OnStar’s system debuted on three 1997 model Cadillacs, 2000 marks the first time the system has been a factory-installed part on 19 General Motors vehicles and is available as a dealer-installed option on 10 other GM models.

A three-button pad is integrated into the car’s overhead console, the rearview mirror, or instrument panel. The driver communicates with OnStar representatives through a hands-free microphone built into the vehicle, and radio speakers carry the advisor’s response. (Advisors receive four weeks of training in routing, cellular technology, and emergency services.)

OnStar also offers convenience services, which include everything from assistance in finding ATM locations and getting directions to a local restaurant to arranging hotel reservations and purchasing concert tickets. More important, in the event of an accident or emergency, you simply press the emergency button and OnStar’s Center will locate your car and assess the situation. If necessary, a live advisor can direct you or automatically send for help. If your air bag deploys, a priority signal is automatically sent to the OnStar Center, where an advisor will attempt to communicate with you and dispatch emergency assistance. OnStar’s MED-NET database stores your personal medical information (e.g., physician’s name, allergies, chronic conditions, and medications). This is done with your permission only.

What if your car is stolen? No problem. Once you alert OnStar, the Center will track and locate your vehicle (via a geographic mapping software) and notify the police of its whereabouts. Of course, OnStar isn’t the only party interested in tracking stolen cars. Insurance carriers are lowering premiums by as much as 25% for cars furnished with such satellite/cellular security systems.

In fact, Progressive Corp., a Mayfield, Ohio-based insurance provider, just completed testing on a product, called Autograph, for tracking many of the cars it insures. Autograph allows Progressive to monitor when, where, and how much a vehicle is driven. This helps the company assess the risk factor of a particular driver. Like OnStar users, Autograph participants can take advantage of 24-hour road and emergency assistance plus remote door unlocking. Needless to say, your insurance carrier rather than your car dealer having

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