March 3, 2021

State of the Art: OnStar FMV Offers Premium but Costly Service

OnStar is a seamless brew of cellular, Bluetooth, GPS, microphone, speakers and human operators. Its feature list includes both safety and convenience elements. For example, if you crash, sensors wirelessly alert a 24-hour call center staffed by 2,000 OnStar operators. They immediately talk to you over the built-in speaker. If you don’t respond, or if you say something like, “My legs are broken in six places,” they automatically send an ambulance. They know exactly where to send it; they can see where you are, and they know what kind of car you’re driving.

According to OnStar, 4.5 million G.M. owners so far have liked their free six-month OnStar trial so much, they signed up to pay for it.

For 15 years, you could get OnStar only in a G.M. car. Now, however, OnStar is available as a rearview mirror that goes into almost any car.

It’s called the OnStar FMV, which, we’re told, stands for “for my vehicle.”

The OnStar FMV may be the world’s most useful rearview mirror, but it’s probably also the most expensive: $300 plus installation. Best Buy, for example, will sell you the mirror and install it for $374 complete.

For my testing, OnStar lent me a Toyota Camry with the mirror installed. (That’s right. G.M. gave me a Toyota.)

After the installation, an unobtrusive wire runs up the windshield from the mirror, around the door molding and down to a control box in the footwell. The mirror itself looks great, at least from the front; only a few nicely integrated buttons distinguish it from the original mirror. From the back or the side, you see that it’s chunked up with internal components.

You also have to sign up for the service, which costs $200 or $300 a year, depending on the features you want (more on this in a moment). You can also pay monthly: $19 or $29 a month.

Clearly, OnStar imposes what you might call a superdeluxe, premium fee.

Fortunately, for that, you get a superdeluxe, premium product.

Every plan includes the famous automatic crash response — that business about OnStar reps calling you when you’re in an accident. The sole difference is that the “embedded” OnStar system (built right into G.M. cars) also knows if your air bag went off, if your car flipped over, how fast you were going and which way, and whether or not the car got hit more than once.

FMV, on the other hand, knows about your crash solely from the motion sensor in the mirror. That doesn’t seem as good, but what do I know? The company refused to let me crash the Camry to try it out (killjoys!).

What I could test was the human operator function. As you’re driving along, you can press the OnStar button for an immediate connection to a live operator. These operators are awesome: well trained, personable and very sensitive to the fact that you’re probably in a car and in a hurry.

You can ask them all kinds of things. You can ask for the nearest gas or cash machine, a weather report, an address or a phone number. You can get AAA-style roadside assistance when you run out of gas, get a flat tire or need a tow. (That feature helps take the sting out of OnStar’s price.)

But best of all, you can ask for directions. It’s amazing.

You press the OnStar button. You hear a couple of rings on the speaker, and then your call is answered in 15 or 30 seconds. “Hi, this is Phoebe. Where can OnStar take you today?”

“Oh, hi. I need directions to La Guardia Airport.”

“All right, sir, I’m looking that up for you. Got it. O.K., I’m sending those instructions to your vehicle.”

“O.K., great! Thanks.”

“Thank you, sir. Have a great day, O.K.? And drive safe!”

(Clearly, OnStar’s specialty is safety, not grammar.)


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