OnStar prices lock out users

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Manny Lopez

OnStar prices lock out users

Detroit — With all due respect to the 63,000 GM car and truck owners who lock their keys in their vehicle every month, I ask this question: Seriously?

More than 2,000 of you each day need an OnStar operator to remotely unlock your doors because you’ve somehow managed to lock yourself outside of your ride.

I understand, it happens. A buddy of mine in high school not only locked his keys in his 1982 Camaro, he left them in the ignition with it running. Made for a tough morning for him as we all walked by and heckled him mercilessly.

But that was when you actually used your key, not an electronic fob, to unlock the doors.

General Motors Co.’s OnStar division counts on mishaps like that for business and its tally of customers is now up to 5.5 million, but I’m no longer one of them.

The turn-by-turn directions, which were awesome, and the "peace of mind" of knowing an operator would notify the authorities if I was in an accident, simply were no longer worth the $299 a year the combined services cost. Especially when I can download a voice-activated turn-by-turn app on my iPhone for $100 or less and own it forever.

As it turns out, in the couple of years I had the services, I accessed the directions option 75 times, which averaged out to almost $7 per use. It was great to have, but not at that price.

Service faces competition

And unless things change in the prices and packages the company offers its customers, it will be bypassed by other mobile technologies, including those for smartphones, which are dropping in costs but increasing in usability.

"I’ve tried a number of the iPhone navigation apps," Walt Dorfstatter, the incoming president of OnStar, told me this week at the company’s command center in Detroit. "But they’re not as good. The screens are small, and there are no people behind them."

True, there are no "Hello, Mr. Lopez, this is Christy from OnStar, may I help you" greetings from phone apps. But as much as I appreciated the usually friendly voices, even the $199 a year for the "Safe & Sound" package outweighed the benefits for me.

Increasingly, I am not alone. OnStar has enjoyed tremendous growth since its first customer came online in September 1996, but it has been flat since 2007. As the economy struggles and consumers continue cutting back, add-ons like OnStar will suffer.

‘We’re the lifeline to people’

Dorfstatter acknowledges their are challenges and says the company is evaluating pay-per-use models. He defends the cost and relays stories of how OnStar has helped save lives. You’ve heard the commercials.

"We’re the lifeline to people, and they see us as their connection to safety," he said, recalling a story about a doctor who went hunting and accidently shot himself but was able to drag himself into the car and call OnStar. "We take this seriously."

No doubt they do.

But they risk locking out a significant group of customers if they don’t change.

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