Hands on with Vauxhall’s OnStar connected car system

What’s the first thing you do when you get in the car? I usually slap the smartphone on the windscreen mount, plug it into a power socket, fire up Google Maps and set my destination. It’s a bit of a fiddle, if I’m honest, but owners of swankier cars with integrated “infotainment” systems don’t have it much easier. They might not have to worry about windscreen mounts and USB power cables, but there’s still plenty of menu browsing and fiddly, onscreen keyboard prodding to bother with.

Hands on with Vauxhall's OnStar connected car system

That sort of faff could be a thing of the past if systems such as Vauxhall’s OnStar become more widespread. At the press of a single button, OnStar puts drivers into contact with a human being at the end of the phone, who can set their satnav destination, diagnose problems with their vehicle, or even help out in an emergency.

I’ve had the opportunity to put OnStar to the test ahead of it hitting the UK and the rest of Europe late this summer.

Vauxhall OnStar: The overhead centre console houses the three OnStar activations buttons

What is OnStar?

It’s worth pointing out that OnStar isn’t a new idea. General Motors has been running the scheme in the US for 20 years now, and were confident enough to give Auto Express’ Steve Fowler a look at it earlier this year, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the system worked perfectly when I tried it.

Setting off from Vauxhall’s HQ in Luton, which is where the European OnStar “command centre” will be based, I punched the blue button – one of three set into the overhead centre console – and asked to be directed to the nearby Woburn Hotel. The call was answered by one of Vauxhall’s advisors within 20 seconds, who found the location and beamed it immediately back to the car’s satnav screen. I was on my way in under a minute.

It’s an appealingly low-tech solution to a hi-tech problem, and it isn’t only restricted to specific destinations or addresses. Drivers can ask OnStar advisors to find them the nearest petrol station when they’re running low on fuel, or somewhere to grab a coffee before setting off on a long journey.

Vauxhall OnStar

On my return journey to Vauxhall’s HQ, the system worked well once again, although there was a slight hiccup when I asked to be taken via the scenic route. I wanted to avoid driving down the dull, traffic-soaked M1 motorway; alas, as I discovered, this sort of preferential route planning isn’t part of the service.

OnStar’s advisors can only research a destination and download it to the car’s satnav; the specific route planning is still calculated by the satnav system in the car.

For an in-depth look at what OnStar is and what it can do for you, take a look at Carbuyer’s OnStar FAQ.

4G in the cabin and emergency assistance

The service is more than just a speakerphone connection to a call centre. In addition to the built-in cellular connection, which OnStar uses to hook up back to base, the system adds a 4G wireless hotspot (single-band, 802.11n) that allows up to seven devices in the car to connect to the internet. Better still, because the car effectively is the antenna, reception is likely to be stronger than you can get with your smartphone alone.

Vauxhall OnStar: OnStar gives passengers access to the internet via an onboard 4G Wi-Fi hotspot

A bank of sensors are woven into the fabric of the car that can monitor items such as tyre pressure, the quality of the oil and engine temperature, so if you hear an unhealthy noise coming from under the bonnet – or spot one of those lights blinking on the dashboard – you can call in and ask for a diagnosis.

However, the most interesting part of the whole system is its potential to save lives in an emergency situation. If you’re involved in an accident, for example, the car’s airbag and impact sensors automatically trigger a call to the OnStar command centre, so an advisor can assess the situation and call in the emergency services. And since the system is location-aware, the ambulance service and police can be sent directly to the scene of the accident.

Vauxhall OnStar: Advisor's can't plan your route; that's left up to the satnav system to work out

That’s not all. The OnStar subscription includes roadside assistance, too, so if your car breaks down then help is only a button-press away. If you feel ill, you can dab the red SOS button for help. The OnStar system can even be of benefit if your car is stolen: a signal can be sent to your car to immobilise the engine remotely, and police can track it down via its last known GPS position.

A third “privacy” button set into the roof trim alongside the OnStar and SOS buttons allows drivers to mask their location. There’s even an accompanying OnStar app, which lets you unlock your car remotely from your smartphone (handy if you’ve locked the keys inside), flash the lights and honk the horn, or locate the car via GPS if you’ve forgotten where you parked it.

Vauxhall OnStar: Command centre in Luton

Prices and availability

The first Vauxhall in the UK to feature OnStar will be the new Vauxhall Astra, where it will appear alongside an in-car ‘infotainment’ system that will support both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Before that, OnStar will be available on other “selected” models from August, as standard on higher-spec models, and as a £395 option on cars further down the range.

The first year of connection to the service is free, as is the 4G contract; after that, you’ll be paying £79 per year for OnStar and a separate fee for data.

Vauxhall isn’t announcing details of 4G packages yet, or the network the system will be using, but said that a variety of packages would likely be available, depending on customers’ needs.

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