What I'm Driving At: Rapping with GM's New OnStar Technology

"Hello, Mr. Stengel. How may I be of service?" So stunned was I to be addressed by a car in this way that I didn't know exactly how to respond. The voice was cheerful and earnest -- determined to please. I was alone, with both hands on the wheel. I cleared my throat. "Uh-hmm...where am I, please?" That's really the best I could do, even though I knew full well that I was heading away from town on Granny White Pike, south of Otter Creek.A faint "beep" from somewhere over the rear seat was followed by the reply. "You are heading south on...is it Granny White Pike? I see an intersection with Old Hickory Boulevard, oh, about two miles ahead. You should be approaching Oman Drive to your left in a few moments. Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Stengel?"What, I wondered, is the proper manner of address for conversing with your car? "I guess that's all I really need to know right now," I said. "Thanks." "Thank-you for calling OnStar, Mr. Stengel. Have a nice rest of the day." The voice disappeared behind an electronic click as Oman Drive streamed past the driver's-side window.General Motors' new OnStar communications system is an uncanny blend of the bizarre and the banal. Judging merely by appearances, the '97 Cadillac DeVille Concours I test-drove recently betrayed nothing unusual beneath its slab-sided, monolithic styling. Slipping inside, it feels like you're stepping into the tastefully beige, sunken living room of one of those Gulf Coast condos overlooking the beach. The cellular phone wired into the center console initially suggests something more like mere luxury than outright wizardry.Then there are those two little paddles inside the left rim of the steering wheel. Flicking the upper proboscis prompts a pleasantly feminine, disembodied voice to announce, "Ready." Suddenly, it feels as if you're not in a typical Cadillac driving down a typical street in a typical neighborhood. Suddenly, in fact, you start thinking that maybe you're not in Kansas anymore. If, at this point, you say the word "Dial" to no one in particular, the lovely numen responds, "Number?" For each digit you announce, the reward is a confirming display at the lower edge of the instrument panel. If shyness leads to an inaudible enunciation, the voice encourages you to try again: "I'm sorry?" she says until you master your self-consciousness. With the word, "Call," your synthetic factotum takes her cue. "Dialing," she says -- and does.All of this hands-free calling and voice-recognition banter is but a preamble to OnStar's really big show. It's just a clever by-product, really, of the system's phone-based communication and tracking system -- in short, a fancy way to make a traditional person-to-person call. By contrast, the procedure for activating OnStar's mind-boggling blend of satellite surveillance and customer service is almost mind-numbingly banal. At any time of day or night, simply depress a small, dedicated key on the phone's handset...and wait. Beep-beep-beep go the digits; sizzle, spackle, and whir go the connection and log-in, until once again you hear the greeting, still solicitous but now very human. "Hello, Mr. Stengel. How may I be of service?"Unlike certain automotive navigational systems currently available -- notably from BMW and Acura -- OnStar's dependence on GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite technology is only partial. An OnStar car sports no fancy electronic map to lure your eyes away from the road. There is only the voice of your "OnStar representative" brimming with unflappable patience. As anti-climatic and retro-tech as this human-to-human "interface" may seem, it is actually the key to OnStar's allure: The system is user-friendly par excellence and, yes, idiot-proof.It is also much more than meets the eye -- or ear. As GM's newest freestanding operating division, OnStar actually provides a raft of services besides navigational assistance. Indeed, the more passive aspects of the system are arguably the more valuable. For instance, in the event of a crash that deploys any of the front or side airbags, OnStar will automatically call "home" to pinpoint the car's location. Should a return call to the car go unanswered, a "real human" will contact the nearest 911 emergency provider and direct assistance to the location indicated. This ability to trace a car's whereabouts is just as helpful in non-emergency situations, as when you need a tow truck out on some dirty back road. And should your OnStar car ever be stolen, the integrated security system issues a silent beacon that supplies a "homing" trace to police and allows "telepathic" control of the car's electronics -- including the ability to lock a thief in the car.Conversely, numskull moves like locking your keys in the car or forgetting where you parked in a crowded airport lot don't even give the system pause. From a pay or cell phone, you can request remote unlocking of the doors or the automotive equivalent of a hoot 'n' holler with flashing lights and a honking horn. Then, for settling jangled nerves, there's the promise of hotel and restaurant recommendations -- with directions -- available 'round-the-clock.For '97, OnStar is installed in Cadillac models only; but next year, it will expand to 24 additional models, including at least one vehicle from each GM division. Price is $895, plus a dealer installation fee that should hover around $300-$400. In addition to securing cellular phone service, users must also subscribe to OnStar for $22.50 per month.Despite the bristling array of high technology bundled into the OnStar service, the system prompts a somewhat ironic feeling that there's not much to play with. Once your OnStar "representative" tells you where you happen to be, well, there you are. In that way, it's kind of like insurance -- the responsible thing to do, but sorta stuffy too. At the same time, for us members of the post-Jetsons generation, it's hard to recall another instance when such technological power - and potential -- appeared so quietly, almost stealthily, in such an advanced state of working order. At some stage in your virtual conversation with an OnStar car, you'll likely develop a sneaking suspicion that it's holding out on you a little, playing coy with responses to questions no one has even thought of yet.

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