Why Apple and Google’s car tech can’t compete with GM OnStar’s 1950s-style phone operator

While the world fixates on driverless car technology, the real “smart” car is yet to come along. Manufacturers have been focusing on how cars of the future will work, rather than how people will be using cars in the future. A gulf has been left between the experience of driving and the driving experience, a gulf that both Apple and Google have tried to fill.

Why Apple and Google's car tech can't compete with GM OnStar's 1950s-style phone operator


The trouble is, both CarPlay and Android Auto are little more than an extension of your phone into your car’s on-board display. They don’t offer much more than a safe way to use your phone behind the wheel. They handle messages, let you make phone calls and can point you in the right direction, but if you encounter a problem or you don’t have your phone with you, it’s not of much use. While we can’t expect “Driving Miss Daisy” levels of interaction from Siri anytime soon, it would be nice if these connected services did more than your average smartphone.

Step in GM OnDrive, a service that’s been available in the States since 1996. Finally coming to Europe later this year, General Motors’ connected service certainly seems like the future of the connected car.

Having visited GM OnStar’s Dallas nerve centre, Auto Express’ Steve Fowler paints an impressive picture of what this manned service can do compared to Silicon Valley’s attempts. Quite simply, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, but so it should be with 14 years under its belt.

Here’s what makes OnStar the future

CarPlay lets you ask Siri questions, and Android Auto gives you the ability to “Ok Google” something, but OnStar is a real person. A person who’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and still knows you by name. It may not be the most technological solution to the personal assistant, but having instant access to someone is a feature that definitely works.


OnStar can’t change the radio station, compose a text, or make a phonecall for you, but it can send you the directions you need right to your car navigation system. In fact, if you tell your OnStar personal assistant where you’re going, they can book a table for you at a restaurant or check to see if your package has been delivered. Put simply, its a service that goes far above what’s currently possible with in-car technology.

Beyond that, OnStar turns its mobile data signal into in-car Wi-Fi, allowing for up to seven devices to connect online, and the European release will feature a privacy button to turn off certain services. With privacy enabled, all location services are switched off, except for when your car reports itself as being in an “emergency situation”. When that happens, an OnStar operator can reach out to see if you’re in trouble and assess the state of the car. They can even send out emergency services to your location if needed.

OnStar users have the added benefit of calling up an operator and asking about the state of their car. Does it feel like it’s pulling a little too much to the right? OnStar will let you know if it’s really an issue to worry about. If it is, OnStar can even book you into a service centre to fix the problem.


Soon it’ll offer “prognostics”, a feature telling you the parts of your car likely to need repairing or replacing in the near future. And, while you’re getting that part replaced OnStar hopes you’ll make use of an upcoming OnStar rewards system, dishing out deals from nearby retailers.

Its European launch will certainly be an interesting event for GM, with OnStar operators having to know a wide range of languages to make the service viable. But when you put the benefits of CarPlay, Android Auto and OnStar next to each other, OnStar is leagues ahead of California’s tech giants.

If you want to read more about Steve Fowler’s OnDrive experience, you can at Auto Express.

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