OnStar is determined not to become the AOL of the automotive industry – a technological relic locked in the past, surpassed by younger and sexier competitors. The telematics branch of GM says it will defend and expand its turf by augmenting its traditional push-button assistance with a raft of new applications.

"Over the next nine to eighteen months, we will be introducing the most compelling, up-to-date applications out there," said Ricky Bly, executive director of global electronic systems for General Motors. "We're going to get back the respect we deserve in this area."

That means battling a tough competitor, Ford's Sync, which gained attention with TV commercials that highlight the ability to impress and embarrass friends using voice commands like: "Play Artist Michael Bolton." But while Sync was outing closet Bolton fans, OnStar's live operators were busy helping drivers flee from Hurricane Gustav.

The company's policy is that even basic subscribers have access to OnStar's crisis advisors who can connect them to local emergency services, guide their evacuation, and arrange accommodations in shelters and hotels. These advisors also provide information on road closures, power outages and weather conditions. Even subscribers not fleeing in their cars can benefit when such disasters occur, as land-based phone lines can be knocked out and, with the power down, cell phone batteries can go dead.

However, while consumers already associate the reassuring sound of "Welcome to OnStar" with the blue button on the mirror of their GM cars, they might not perceive a connection to future in-car applications such as texting, Google Maps, Facebook and Pandora internet radio. But OnStar says that is coming, as the company shifts from the construction and operation of its network to targeting delivery of the services customers want now and tomorrow. "We need to drive a customer focus," said OnStar's president Chris Preuss.

Among the features in development are the ability to post comments on Facebook using OnStar's voice interface and to have texts read out loud. The driver will be able to reply with one of several canned messages, like "I'm on my way" or "I'm driving and will call you in a few minutes."

Keeping social media and texting out of the car entirely might be preferable, but because many will try to use those services while driving, OnStar wants to provide some simple, hands-free ways to do it quickly. "You are not going to separate people from their devices," said Preuss.

By installing phone apps in the car, the related services can be used in a safer manner. The company will underscore this with a campaign distributing locking holders that place drivers' phones out of reach while they are on the move. This will be supported with public activities, such as a partnership with Saturday Night Live to convert "Toonces the Driving Cat" to "Toonces the Texting Cat" in a November show.

Additionally, GM is developing its own phone apps under the OnStar MyLink brand. These apps will let drivers perform functions remotely using their smart phone. This will begin with the Chevrolet Volt, where drivers can control and monitor the car's recharging. But even conventional cars will soon let owners check the doors and lock or unlock them as necessary, even flash the lights and honk the horn when trying to locate the vehicle in huge parking lots.

The app will also be able to signal a flat tire, so the driver will be aware ahead of time rather than discovering it in a dark parking lot later in the day. When a car with the MyLink flat tire application loses air pressure, an alert is sent to OnStar, which will then forward the information to the driver's phone.

According to Preuss, these features – along with a network of advisors – will reinforce OnStar's position as the leader in automotive safety, security and infotainment.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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