By Charles Krome
The friendly folks at General Motors gave me some seat time recently in a rather interesting loaner, complete with the obligatory full tank of gas. It was a Ford F-150, and if you’re wondering why the General would lend me its arch-enemy’s top vehicle, it’s because the truck also came complete with OnStar FMV (For My Vehicle), GM’s new standalone retail product designed to bring the benefits of the proven OnStar system to drivers across the marketplace.
From a physical standpoint, what you get with OnStar FMV is a new rearview mirror that contains all the system’s hardware, and it’s connected to a relatively unobtrusive external microphone that, in the F-150, was mounted just to the side of the roof’s pulldown sunglasses storage. Installation is handled by the retailer—Best Buy is GM’s initial partner for the system—and the store’s technicians just swap mirrors, install the mic and connect OnStar FMV to the vehicle’s power system. The cost per BestBuy.com is currently $374.99, which includes “basic installation.”
Speaking of installation, it is worth pointing out that whoever installed the setup in the F-150 seemed to have stained the headliner fabric. Also, it looks like some of the fabric had to be cut near the windshield for the OnStar FMV wiring, and the result appears a bit rough and unfinished, although I didn’t have a non-OnStar F-150 on hand to compare it to. I bring this up because I know some folks are pretty sensitive about this kind of thing, and I can see how it could become an issue if installers aren’t careful
Once OnStar FMV is installed, GM then offers two different subscription plans. The “Safe & Sound” plan includes OnStar’s emergency, security and connections services, with the “Directions & Connections” plan adding unlimited access to OnStar’s turn-by-turn directions service. The price for the former is currently $18.95 per month, for the latter it’s $28.90 per month, and both plans offer discounts for full-year and multi-year subscriptions.
What does this mean for consumers? Safe & Sound provides three basic functions:
If there’s an emergency, drivers can press the red OnStar button to connect to a trained advisor or, if the system detects an airbag deployment, an emergency advisor will automatically attempt to contact the car’s occupants.
For security, the system allows stolen-vehicle tracking, and OnStar advisors can also provide help with roadside assistance in a number of ways, including arranging to have help from nearby service facilities sent to the vehicle’s location. In addition, drivers can call the 1-888-4-ONSTAR number to have a locksmith dispatched for lockout situations.
There are two options for hands-free calling, too, including a built-in setup that doesn’t require a separate cellphone yet can still make and take calls, as well as Bluetooth compatibility for drivers who want to pair existing phones.
Connections & Directions features all this, along with an interesting nav solution in which advisors send the system verbal turn-by-turn directions that are then “spoken” aloud to guide you.
Now, I’ll admit I didn’t test out the emergency or security services, but I can report that OnStar FMV did provide some solid advantages in the other two areas. There were no issues with reception or anything like that with the hands-free calling, which is to be expected since most companies have that down pretty well by now. The voice-recogntion capability, however, was noticeably above average and should be a nice customer-satisfier. Also, while many people would rely on their own cellphones when using OnStar, the ability to leverage the system without one is still a nice benefit, both for people who don’t own a separate mobile phone and as a backup for “just in case” scenarios
The turn-by-turn directions system has some pros and cons, but the fact that you’re talking to a human being to get the directions certainly fall into the first column. I tried to be moderately tricky a couple of times to put the advisors to the test, and they always responded. For example, on one family outing I told the advisor I was “trying to get to the racetrack in Waterford Hills,” even though I knew the name of the place was “Waterford Hills Road Racing” and is technically located in the city of Clarkston. I was also correctly guided to the closest Wendy’s when I asked where the closest Wendy’s was.
The ability to have a conversation with someone to get accurate directions when you have only a vague sense of the exact name of your destination or where it’s located is a huge, huge bonus and is far, far less frustrating then trying to do the same with a computer-only system, and it’s really a key highlight of what OnStar has to offer. Further, I did bring up the delicate subject of advisor language skills with Adam Denison from OnStar Communications, and he told me that, “the advisors who do the majority of the interaction with our customers sit in call centers in Warren, Mich., Charlotte, N.C. and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. English is never a problem. We also have advisors who interact with French and Spanish-speaking customers here in North America. In China, of course, the advisors are all native Chinese speakers.”
As an FYI, it was never an issue when I was using the system, I was just curious because, like many people, I’ve had my share of communication difficulties with other companies’ call centers in the past.
One more thing about OnStar FMV navigation: Note that you get no visual help with the system. Even in vehicles that have pre-existing navigation screens, OnStar FMV can’t be used to send you a map of any sort. On the other hand, the OEM OnStar system offered in GM vehicles can provide this option, so it’s not inconceivable that OnStar FMV could do something similar in the future.
Overall, my take here is that OnStar FMV is a highly effective, well-priced, easy-to-use alternative to OEM telematics systems that should find a fair number of buyers even as other automakers start extending their own offerings—after all, plenty of people still opt for aftermarket GPS units, and those don’t offer near the functionality of OnStar FMV.
Nice call on this, GM.
GM provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.