THE BLOG

GM and OnStar -- Pushing Our Privacy Envelope?

11/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

General Motors' OnStar service could mean car thieves are in for a big surprise. But first, the company's OnStar subscribers will need to ask themselves if they really want such a potentially intrusive system in their cars and trucks.

"Sure they will... Why not?" is a tough argument to beat when a feature like this is made possible by technology. But where do we draw the line? When is enough technology... just that - enough? Okay, so you decide. If you have a GM car or truck, it's a decision you'll eventually have to make in the real world, anyway.
Starting with about 20 models for 2009, OnStar will be able to slow a car that is reported stolen, and the radio may even speak up and tell the thief to pull over because police are watching. If police spot the crook in your car, they can send a signal which would halt the vehicle altogether, and let the police do their thing.

Many in the auto industry have considered the possibility of OnStar being able to provide this kind of a service, and there are stories of GM and police agencies having tested and developed the system until now, when The General feels they can provide this service safely to all involved - and charge for it, too. Finally, they've gone public with one of the best-known secrets in the car world.

OnStar already finds 700 to 800 cars per month using its GPS, or global positioning system. Most of those requests are from people who simply forgot where they parked. But the odd stolen vehicle case has made OnStar into a hero on occasion.

2008-10-07-gm_logo1.jpg

Here's how GM says it would work:

Car owners must first report the theft to police and then contact OnStar to request tracking. If the owner has not previously opted out of the service, OnStar will then report the location of the vehicle to police.

Now, can't you already imagine the conversations with the poor shnooks who didn't check the right box when they were sold the OnStar service, or was "opted out" mistakenly? "Hey, okay, I'll pay whatever it is! Put it on my credit card! GM already has that! Just do it -- and NOW! Please... Geez, there they go... with my brand-new 'Slade... Man, my wife is gonna kill me".

The OnStar system in the stolen car then calls police and tells them the stolen car's location.

So the victim calls the police and OnStar and then OnStar calls the police to tell them where the car is. Then police SWAT teams open fully-automatic machine gun fire... No, sorry, that's next year's new OnStar feature... You'll see it in the Neiman-Marcus Holiday Catalogue this coming December.

Once police have the vehicle in sight, officers will communicate with OnStar to make sure they are following the correct one. To help make that determination, an OnStar operator could, for instance, make the vehicle's lights flash. Or open the trunk lid. Or lock and unlock the doors 50 times... Or find a classical station on the audio system and play it VERY LOUDLY... Just about any part of the car's electrical system can be made to "JUMP!" through an OnStar signal. This whole thing could get pretty creative! Police from different towns and cities could challenge each other... It could be one of those reality TV shows, with police forces from different jurisdictions trying to nail their crook faster and better than others... I smell Emmy! It's got everything we Americans want from our TVs - and criminals, too! I say the show should be "live," too, like America's Most Wanted.

Once cops confirm they have the right car and thief (as opposed to the other car and thief in the area), they could then ask OnStar to slow - and eventually stop - the car by remotely cutting the engine's fuel flow.

2008-10-07-onstarlogo.jpg

Then, if officers see the car in motion and judge it can be stopped safely, they can tell OnStar operators, who will send the car a signal via cell phone to slow it to a halt. And you know how cops are always right on top of their judgement games when involved in actually catching a crook.

Now, honestly - How cool is all that?!? Still, seems a little complicated...

2008-10-07-cesrickwagonerpresceogaryshapiro2008.jpg (GM's Rick Wagoner and CES CEO Gary Shapiro with the Chevrolet Volt at CES 2008 in Las Vegas). GM execs told us that everything else in the vehicle still works after the alarm goes out, literally and figuratively. The steering works. The brakes work. The engine works ... but it can be slowed or shut-off.

GM might enable the car to give a recorded verbal warning before the car completely stops moving. A voice would tell the driver through the radio speakers that police will stop the car and the car's emergency flashers would go on. Or the AC system could heat the interior up to, say, 110 or cool it down to 28. Just for example, you understand.

With OnStar today, drivers can call operators for emergency help, and OnStar operators will contact a car if its sensors detect a crash. The service has about five million subscribers. Those who want OnStar but don't like police having the ability to slow down their car can opt out of that particular service, GM says, but their research, says GM, shows that 95 per cent of subscribers would like that feature. Hard to argue with that.

GM would also be willing to sell the technology to other automakers in an effort to cut police chases - and make GM money. I think in the case of this service, it would be harder to find people who don't want it than those who do.

2008-10-07-wagonerlutz.jpg (GM CEO Rick Wagoner (r) and the corporation's VP of North American product, Bob Lutz, at a recent press conference).

Wonder if they can send an electrical burst through the driver's seat, so then the cops just have to spot the person screaming in pain and running around a car somewhere in front of them?

Or, I wonder if GM, like AT&T, will "cooperate" with the federal government and allow authorities to listen to conversations going on inside their OnStar-equipped cars and trucks? Or could OnStar listen for certain words which might "trigger" more intrusive and active listening by the feds?

To many of us who have covered the car business, this announcement comes as no surprise. I guarantee this system has been tested time and again by car-owners, thieves and police - and all of them probably had no idea they were participating in a test of new technology. Heck, the CIA gave LSD to countless people in the NYC Subway system, and no one found out about it until 40 or 50 years later. Hmm... Come to think of it, maybe that explains dad's strange actions in the '60s...

Frankly, this is the kind of technology which gives me the creeps. There are worse things in life than having a vehicle stolen. Some readers might not like this, but I'd say even a thief's life is more consequential than some car which might get chopped-up into spare parts (which is how most of them wind up, anyway).

Whatever happened to, "Hey, it's only a car - That's why you have insurance, right?"

Next time you buy a new car, ask the salesperson about the "black box" which might be hidden-away somewhere in it - they won't be able to give you an intelligent answer. They're not allowed to, from what I understand.

In these days and in this country, everyone is perceived to be a criminal, and there are a myriad of "dark systems" just waiting to "catch us the next time."