The wave of advanced vehicle connectivity technologies coming to vehicles embrace a number of interlinked elements, from seamless personal connectivity, to driver assistance systems (and autonomous vehicle control), intelligent transport systems, on-board telematics and the changing human machine interface itself inside the vehicle. In this month’s management briefing we talk to OEMs and examine key aspects of the connectivity revolution coming down the line. In this instalment, Cat Dow runs the rule over GM’s plans to launch its OnStar telematics service in Europe in October 2015.

General Motors‘ OnStar service is, in a sense, nothing new. BMW, Volvo, Ford and Mercedes-Benz have featured concierge or emergency assistance, in one fashion or another, for some time now. Where the brands differ, however, is their accessibility and their approach. It is these differences General Motors bring which will truly shift consumer expectations of in-car connectivity.

Speaking exclusively to just-auto in Detroit, Terry Inch, Executive Director of Sales, Service and Marketing OnStar, says “General Motors is working to create an industry-defining business based on vehicle communications service.” But can OnStar really define the industry? The answer is yes.

The human touch

The OnStar system, which sits on General Motor’s new infotainment and connectivity platform, allows drivers and passengers to – by pressing a little blue button – connect to a human OnStar operator, who assists with all manor of requests.

The operator can send navigation maps directly to the car, remotely unlock or lock the vehicle and run a check on the vehicle’s health to make sure all is functioning well. After a crash – in which the airbags are deployed, the vehicle automatically alerts the call centre and a two-person team gears up; one calls into the car to verify the status of the occupants, while the other calls the emergency services. The OnStar operators are medically trained to offer first aid advice and calm other occupants of the vehicle, until first responders arrive on the scene.

It could be argued this middle-man process between the car and the emergency services would hamper response times, but in fact, it offers two advantages. Firstly, in the event of emergency, the driver can initiate SOS contact, instead of fumbling for their phone. Just hit the red button, located next to the blue one – a simple action a child can learn. Secondly, it allows GM to triage the calls received and dispatch the emergency services only in the cases of true emergencies.

With information about the accident – severity of impact and the damage done gleaned from the vehicle’s sensors and delta force readings – the emergency services can respond with the right equipment. Thus, the process reduces the response time.

Though other brands connect to the emergency services, their services tend to connect directly and automatically upon detection of a collision, much in way the EU-mandated ‘eCall’ system prescribes. The service of a human being automatically contacting the occupants of a car involved in an accident is invaluable should the unthinkable ever happen.

Inch described examples where several of the 100,000 emergency transactions – AKA red button pushes – have been initiated by the driver; whether it be in a “good samaritan” situation, e.g. reporting a nearby accident, or admitting to a suicidal state of mind. It becomes clear that no matter what the request or emergency, OnStar will deal with it.

With this level of flexibility and service, it would be natural to jump straight to cost. But note first, this is not just available for the premium model car buyers. GM expect almost all models of their portfolio to be OnStar-equipped. The Detroit-based manufacturer has already started an ambitious renewal programme, in which 47% of its portfolio will given a refresh by 2018.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, oulines the investment push and wave of new model activity planned for Europe. “We are investing €4 billion in Europe through 2016 and this is fuelling the largest product offensive we’ve had in Opel’s history. We will be introducing 27 models and 17 new engines in Europe between 2014 and 2018 alone…It was very natural to take it to the next level and really make a huge statement by having 4G LTE on most models and then build into China and into Europe so we see it [OnStar] as a very important technology to our product.”

A priceless service for a fair price?

From October, European customers of new Opel/Vauxhall models will have 12 months of the telematics service, completely free-of-charge. Sara Nicholson, OnStar Europe Program Lead, explains that this gives customers a year to get the full benefits of the service, before they commit to the monthly subscription. With the first official subscribers at least 18 months’ away, GM has yet to disclose a price [editor’s note – looks like the monthly sub will be in the region of a couple of cups of coffee]. However, it believes subscriptions for the OnStar service and data allowance will be separated out.

When responding to questions about reception dead spots, Nicholson is quick to point out the antenna on the vehicles will be much bigger than those on a mobile device, and offer a better signal to the car. Furthermore, she points to ongoing projects undertaken with the network providers to mitigate 4G reception dead spots, outside towns and cities. It makes a compelling case for embedded connectivity, versus systems which rely on devices brought into the car.

The OnStar service has gone from strength to strength in the 19 years it has been available in the States. In the first year, GM recorded 3,600 transactions – defined by ‘blue button pushes’. That figure has grown to 5 million, with subscribers averaging two calls into the dedicated call centre every second.

OnStar Shanghai, launched in 2009, sees up to five times as many transactions from just under one million customers. Calls are generally answered within five seconds and in whichever language the driver has preset the service to, from within the car – regardless of the country the car is currently in.

European differences and challenges

The challenges to launch in Europe have been difficult, but not insurmountable. Back in 2012, GM announced a partnership with Telefonica, sparking rumours of a European launch. However, the fragmented composition of Europe in terms of mobile data carriers, regulators and privacy legislation has been somewhat of a minefield to navigate. These are the same issues which have hampered EU’s ‘eCall’ progress. General Motors CEO, Mary Barra, comments: “OnStar is not a one-size-fits-all technology. I think you can clearly see that we will make modifications to make sure that OnStar means the needs and demands of the European customers.”

Accordingly, the European version will feature a third “privacy” button, which will allow subscribers to mask the car’s data when the calls are being placed. GM is keen to assure customers that no trace is placed on the cars.

Having gained key learnings in the US, Mexico and China rollouts, GM has now put the infrastructure in place to launch in Europe. Initially 13 countries in Europe will get the service. In Germany, UK and the Netherlands the car will also have mobile Wi-Fi capability for up to seven devices. Barra continues, “Europe is different but our foundations are grounded in great expertise.”

With the multitude of languages on the continent, there is little surprise General Motors has made the decision to locate the ‘OnStar Command Centre’ in Luton, UK. The centre, just outside London with good connections to Luton International Airport, will be able to recruit from the pool of multi-lingual talent in the capital. GM reports around 5% growth per annum on transactions and 2013 saw 23 million global transactions, a figure matched by combining the number of transactions in January and February 2015 alone. With such extensive growth, the benefits to the local, national and wider European economy look promising.

“We want to open up a pipeline of value for Opel customers. We have a belief that this is the gateway to offer customers value and gain customers for life,” Barra maintains. Undoubtedly, OnStar will change the way these consumers connect with their cars forever.

See also: GENEVA: OnStar to be ‘revolutionary’ in Europe – Opel chief

April 2015 management briefing: Vehicle connectivity technologies (1) – Volvo Cars interview