Need help with a breakdown? Can't find your motel? Want to book a flight for next weekend?
If you're driving one of 29 General Motors models with the OnStar cellular communication and satellite tracking system, you're in luck.
Popularized by commercials featuring Batman in an OnStar-enabled Batmobile, the system is both a lifeline and a concierge on the road.
Standard equipment on fancier cars and a $695 option (plus a yearly fee) on others, Onstar uses an embedded Global Positioning System receiver and a 3-watt, hands-free cellular telephone to put you in touch with a 24-hour staff of advisors in Troy, Mich., and Charlotte, N.C. They, in turn, can dip into a database with more than 5 million records to provide information that ranges from directions to your destination to the location of the nearest movie theater.
A special service available from 8 a.m. to midnight can procure sporting events tickets and help you book a flight.
In an emergency, OnStar advisors can send an ambulance or police to your rescue, unlock your doors when you've locked your keys in the car, and perform basic diagnostics on your engine when a warning light comes on.
In addition, if you're in an accident and your airbag deploys, Onstar flashes a cellular alert to its communicatons center.
"There is an audio tape of an OnStar conversation [with a woman who had driven into a small lake in Texas]. You can hear her saying, 'Help, help, help,' and you can hear water rushing in," says OnStar spokeswoman Geri Lama. "It was pretty dramatic."
The woman got out of the car before it sank, and OnStar was able to pinpoint her location and send help.
"Of course, we have funny stories, too," Lama says. "A couple of puppies hit the button by accident while they were in a car and began barking. The owner came back and found the dogs chatting -- well, barking anyway -- with an advisor."
OnStar, with 270,000 subscribers, so far has outmuscled its competition -- Ford's RESCU system and Mercedes-Benz's TeleAid. While these "telematic" systems are mostly available on luxury cars, OnStar can be ordered from the factory or installed by dealers in sport utility vehicles, mini-vans and other mid-level models. OnStar will add Acuras to its list for the 2002 model year.
The system worked as advertised during the week that General Motors loaned us an OnStar-equipped, 2000 Cadillac DeVille DTS (yours for a mere $55,000). Three buttons on the rearview mirror handle communications. One connects for regular service, a second is for emergencies and the third ends the call. A microphone is attached to the mirror, while the car's speakers provide the sound.
For example, after an early morning fishing trip one day, I found that breakfast was on my mind, so I asked OnStar to get me to the nearest International House of Pancakes.
A misunderstanding with the OnStar advisor got me going in circles a couple of times as I negotiated the intersection of the Baltimore Beltway and Merritt Boulevard. But we cleared it up with a few minutes of chat that eventually led me to a stack of pancakes dripping with maple syrup.
OnStar's best trick, though, occurred at night as I drove up and down a lonely road in Eatontown, N.J. looking for my motel. It turned out that the Red Roof Inn I had called for a reservation was on a side street off the Garden State Parkway and impossible to find.
First, the advisor told me that getting there looked pretty tricky. Then she said, "Hold on a minute" and she put me through to the motel desk clerk for instructions .
We didn't have the misfortune to test OnStar under truly dire or dangerous circumstances. But had I been carjacked on one of Baltimore's mean streets, I could have called a toll-free number and asked OnStar to track the car and call the police to nab the thieves.
OnStar's limits are the same that apply to cell phones. For example, when we tried to complete one call, we found ourselves in one of those blackout zones that inhabit all cellular systems. So we had to wait two minutes until we had driven back into a coverage area. This makes the system useless if an emergency occurs far from the nearest cellular tower.
The company offers two levels of service. The basic package, at $199 a year, offers stolen vehicle tracking, remote diagnostics, and emergency services. The premium package, at $399, adds driving directions and other goodies, including access to restaurant ratings and advice about points of interest near your location. A year of basic service is part of the price.
In the fall, OnStar will add new features, including cellular telephone service and the OnStar Virtual Advisor, a customized, voice-activated Web page. Set it up with the news and information you want- including e-mail, sports scores and weather. Then say the word and a synthesized voice will read it to you.