Now I get it. Now I understand why so many people choose GM vehicles like Buick. It’s because these vehicles come equipped with OnStar. OnStar is like having your own personal, 24×7 co-pilot and concierge on-call. For the past couple of days, I have been not only immersed within all things OnStar and Buick, but also was able to experience the revitalization efforts underway within The Motor City – Detroit. From visits to secret underground labs to jazz clubs to racing down the streets of Detroit racking up scavenger hunt points, OnStar gave a group of us an experience never to forget. It was truly #ConnectedByOnStar !
Arriving in the Detroit airport, I was quickly whisked to downtown Detroit in the comfort of a Buick LaCrosse. It was quiet, comfortable and luxurious – almost limo-esqe. The Westin Book Cadillac Hotel was about 30 minutes from the airport. Once there, I had time to walk around the block a bit but since I had this pre-conceived notion at how “dangerous” Detroit is, I stuck to a close proximity to the hotel. At dinner, I met up with the rest of the group of people that were invited. It was quite an energetic and fun-filled group. During dinner, we met Michelle Begnoche from the Michigan Economic Development Council and the Pure Michigan Campaign who talked to us about the Detroit cultural and business re-development and resurgence currently under way. After hearing about these efforts, I really wanted to see more of the revitalized Detroit (as well as the areas still struggling).
There were about 18 of us participating in the OnStar event, with people representing all quadrants of the US (even locals).
Below is the group (and I have set up a Twitter list should you want to follow this great group of social media mavens):
Melissa Buckles – @BargainShopMom / Bargain Shopper Mom
Lara DiPaola – @DiPaolaMomma / Chicken Nuggets of Wisdom, She Buys Cars, Traveling Moms
Stefanie Fauquet – @MommyMusings / Mommy Musings
Fred Goodall – @MochaDad / Mocha Dad
Bren Herrara – @BrenHerrera / B So Chic
Shelley King-Steimer – @StockPilingMoms / Stock Piling Moms
Charles Krome – @autobytel / Autobytel
Barbara Likos – @BarbLikos / Mom Off Track, Traveling Mom
Stephanie McCratic – @EvolvedMommy / Evolved Mommy
Becca Meyer – @mamabmy / Mama B Blog
Kim Moldofsky – @KimMoldofsky / The Maker Mom, Hormone Colored Days
Travis Rauh – @TravisRauh
Christen Rochon – @DivasandDorks / Divas and Dorks
Carissa Rogers – @CarissaRogers / Good N Crazy, She Buys Cars, Traveling Moms
Michael Sheehan – @HighTechDad / HighTechDad
Nick Shell – @nickshellwrites / Parents Magazine’s The Dadabase
Nicole Wakelin – @Nicole Wakelin / Total Fan Girl, Geek Mom, The Fast Lane Car
Melisa Wells – @melisalw / Suburban Scrawl
Angela Leon and Stuart Fowle (both of OnStar) kicked the festivities off with a brief intro talk. We dove into a nice dining experience and many of us were off to bed after the meal as we had a full, action-packed day ahead of us.
GM World Headquarters & Buick
The next day, for breakfast, we were (Buick) driven to the GM World headquarters which is facing the Detroit River. Right across the river was Canada (which made for interesting cellular data connections as I received a confusing text from AT&T saying “Welcome abroad!” – that was aBROAD not aBOARD). During breakfast, we got an intro to the rebirth that Buick is going through.
The Buick Regal’s history goes back over 40 years with the 1st generation introduced in 1973. It was the only mid-sized car in the US to come with an efficient V-6 engine while having V-8 performance. The Regal is now on its 5th generation (2009-2014) after a few years hiatus. The dramatic redesign and advanced tech features are directly targeted at a younger group of new Buick buyers.
After the Buick Breakfast, we headed up to the OnStar Headquarters where, sitting in the “Top Gun”-esque briefing center where we had a question and answer session with Greg Ross, Director of GCC Product & Infotainment Strategy, and Terry Inch, Chief Operating Officer for OnStar. What was intriguing to me about this session was the anecdotes and tales that were told. There was one about a man who when out hunting on his own, deep off the beaten path in the woods with an antique gun. As he was getting out of his vehicle, the weapon discharged, shooting the man fatally (he believed). He was able to connect to OnStar and was hoping to speak with his wife and kids before he bled out. The OnStar advisor (that is what they are called) was able to not only get the man’s family on the phone but also send GPS coordinates to local law enforcement and medical teams. Since the man was not on a marked road, traditional GPS navigation wouldn’t work. There is a happy ending to this story, the man survived and spoke with his family the whole time while the rescue team arrived.
After the Q&A, we saw the OnStar Command Center in action.
The large map of the US starts every day empty and fills up over the day showing Blue Button requests, emergency button presses and automatic crash reports. Also in the Command Center are news monitors so that Advisors and Supervisors would know if there is a news event (like a storm) that could trigger increase requests to the OnStar group. A picture is worth a 1000 words.
After the Command Center, we went down into the bowels of the GM building to the OnStar Labs.
The Labs section had all of the experiments that may or may not make it to light of day. (And since there was some super secret things going on, I’m not sure if I can share it but here’s a hint, think about cameras inside and outside a car for not only security but also social sharing.) But given that OnStar will soon be providing 4G service within the OnStar system (from the slower 2G service that is available now), streaming video and mobile hotspots will be coming.
Hot Dogs & Then a Drive to an OnStar Call Center
Part of the experience that OnStar was providing us was experiencing Detroit. According to the locals, one thing that had to be done was have a Coney Dog at either American or Lafayette Coney. I indulged and must say it was pretty darn amazing. And, believe it or not, we missed Jimmy Fallon visiting that same place just minutes after we headed out to visit the call center.
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) November 8, 2013
Pairing up, we got behind the wheel of a Buick Regal to head out to the OnStar call center. My partner, Carissa, and I chose to get the only manual shift Buick Regal GS in the group. Armed with directions automatically downloaded from OnStar at our request, we headed down the road.
The OnStar Call Center was huge, and for me, a bit overwhelming. We were able to listen to two types of calls, an onboarding call (when someone gets a new car with OnStar and wants to activate their service) and a direction request (where someone wants to get turn-by-turn directions beamed to their car). I was amazed at the number of calls each of the reps were able to handle in a day (for the on-boarding, my rep said she averaged about 60 and for the directions, my other rep said about 200 requests). I was simply exhausted thinking about the whole thing. But the call center had a very “party like” atmosphere with lots of energy.
One of the powerful features of OnStar is the Stolen Vehicle service. If an OnStar equipped vehicle is reported to OnStar as stolen, they content the police and locate the car and then through some technological wizardry and with the help of law enforcement, they are able to remotely disable the vehicle. We are able to actually play the role of a car thief. Once again, I got behind the wheel, this time in a Buick Enclave, and with an OnStar manager, we raced down a closed road while the manager phoned in a disable-request. This is where it got really interesting.
OnStar will only disable a vehicle once law enforcement has identified the vehicle and they are pursuing it. The vehicle begins to flash its hazard lights (unknown to the driver) so that law enforcement can easily know which the proper vehicle is. Then an officer (who is coordinating with OnStar) can initiate a vehicle slow-down. When this happened, no matter what I did with the accelerator, I could not speed up the car. I had the pedal pushed to the floor and I was still slowing down. Finally, the car was completely disabled by the side of the road and I couldn’t do anything.
Similarly, OnStar can completely disable the ignition of a stolen vehicle, allowing it to be easily recovered.
Lots of Classic Cars
After leaving the Call Center, we headed out to the GM Heritage Center. We didn’t know what this was but once we went inside, it was amazing! It was loaded with what seemed to be hundreds of classic GM cars of all types. Pictures tell it all:
The cars are rotated in and out from an even larger collection. All of the license plates had the year of the auto and many of the vehicles were experimental in nature. I was simply amazed. (Here’s a quick video of what you could see.)
Rushing to Chat, then Dinner, Drinks & Jazz
We raced back to the hotel (legally, of course) to be able to participate in a Twitter Chat with @OnStar where we talked about Technology Tips for Parents. For about an hour, OnStar and about half of our group talked about parenting and how technology can help.
After Tweeting like crazy and a bit of downtime, we walked over to a local new restaurant called Angelina’s Italian Bistro. The short walk was interesting as we saw abandoned office and residential apartment buildings, covered with actually beautiful graffiti. Rounding a corner, we saw Angelina’s. It was on a block of packed bars and restaurants, quite a difference from the previous block.
After dinner, we walked a few more blocks to a jazz club called Cliff Bell’s. Originally a jazz club in 1930’s it recently went through a phase of dormancy for a few decades until it was recently re-opened.
The music was fantastic and the rich, mahogany curved ceilings created an amazing ambiance.
The OnStar Scavenger Hunt
The last day of our visit was probably the most action-packed and adrenaline-filled. Once again, we paired up (also we had a Detroit local with us) and hopped behind the wheel of either Buick Regal or LaCrosse and armed with just a list of clues, location names and some addresses, we were set loose on Detroit. We had to use OnStar to find the locations and navigate throughout Detroit.
This time, I paired up with Kim Moldofsky and off we set, determined to get the most points!
The scavenger hunt truly showcased the power of OnStar. We were given a few sheets of hunt items like taking a picture at a theater that was playing Mama Mia! and getting some Detroit souvenirs. My favorite one though was asking the OnStar Advisor for the directions to a Whole Foods where we then purchased some cans. The second part of that particular hunt item was taking the cans to a Food Donation facility. The drive to the facility took us through an area of Detroit that was obviously suffering.
While it was sad to see so many abandoned and some burnt out homes and buildings, we did learn that the revitalization is moving forward and investment is slowly starting to pick up. Our hunt led us through various areas of Detroit. Had we had another hour, we probably would have seen a lot more of the culture and architecture of the area.
At another point in the hunt, the other occupant of the car (the person from Detroit) moved our vehicle when we were away from it. We then had to use the RemoteLink Mobile App to make the car honk and flash its lights so that we could locate where it had been moved to. This was truly a handy and helpful feature.
In the end, Kim and I didn’t win, but we both felt like winners as we were able to participate in the event. And honestly, it was a great way to experience the power of OnStar. We used the “blue button” which connects you to an OnStar Advisor immediately, who also instantly knew our location as well as was able to download driving directions down to our Buick Regal. And we had the option to use the “white button” which had pre-programmed locations specific to our scavenger hunt, the only difference being that we did not talk to a live person, it was all automated with voice recognition. At a couple of points, we did try using Google maps and Apple’s Siri to get addresses and some directions, but that honestly proved to be more effort than it was worth as we had to have the navigator typing madly and trying to get the right turn-by-turn directions while avoiding getting carsick. OnStar was definitely a lot easier and less distraction since it was all integrated into the vehicle.
OnStar has a monthly service that is $19.95 and includes:
- Automatic Crash Response
- Emergency Services
- Hands-Free Calling
- RemoteLink Mobile App
- Stolen Vehicle Assistance
- Roadside Assistance
- Remote Services
- Vehicle Diagnostics
For $29.90/month, you get all of the above services plus the Turn-by-Turn Navigation (which is what we used during the scavenger hunt).
Overall, I learned a lot about why GM chose to include this valuable service in all of their vehicles. From a safety perspective, it is very comforting know that at a push of a button, you can speak with someone (even in some areas where your cellular service might not work) and in the event of an accident where you are incapacitated, emergency response teams can be summoned automatically and immediately be notified of your exact location. And locking your keys in your car is something that you can just think of as something from the past. An OnStar Advisor can remotely unlock your vehicle for you.
I appreciate the effort that OnStar, Buick, the City of Detroit and GM made introducing me to not only the vehicles and service, but also to the Motor City. It was fantastic learning about a slice of America!
Disclosure Text: OnStar paid for my transportation, food, entertainment and lodging for this event. My opinions about OnStar, GM, Buick and Detroit and my writing are entirely my own and not those of those aforementioned parties, nor subject to their editorial approval. More information can be found in my About page as well as here.
HTD says: I wish sometimes that OnStar were there for other activities in my life!