Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lemon Law Auto Expert Asks “Is Onstar Your Friend?”

Lemon Law Auto Expert Asks “Is Onstar Your Friend?”

Randy Sottile, California Lemon Law Auto Experts’ research and opinions on GM’s OnStar system is that of a ‘double-edged sword’.

OnStar_logo[1]One side of the blade is the benefits (Corporate Profits and Information Control) that GM is receiving from the consumer. The other side of the “blade” are the costs the consumer/end user through (via payment of monthly or yearly subscription services) utilizing the service, and resultant personal and vehicle information/data they are giving to OnStar, a prime concern for loss of privacy.

OnStar is sold and licensed from GM to various car manufacturers. Each carries its own name. Names include LexusLink, Tele-Aid, and more. It is a subscription-based service, with many new cars coming with the first 3 months (or a year) free of monthly subscription charges.

Let’s first talk about the benefits of OnStar, then balance it by talking about its electronic “dark side”. On the benefits side, it uses CDMA voice and data communication, and GPS technology for vehicle location tracking. It provides HFC (Hands Free Calling), EMS (Emergency Medical Services connect) Automatic Crash Response allows emergency advisors to provide emergency medical services (EMS) with additional crash information such as rollover status, direction of impact, which airbags have deployed (front, side etc.,) and the Delta-V (change in velocity) Force which is a medical measure of the intensity of an impact. All this information allows EMS to respond to the crash with appropriate equipment. There is also on-board vehicle diagnostics, direct-to-OnStar representative communications, voice recognition communication, remote car unlock, and more recently a connection to police for car location tracking (services and features may vary among car models/years/subscription options). This is a partial list of what OnStar can do.

Now, to what I characterize as the “dark side” of OnStar. Frankly, OnStar epitomizes the concept of “Big Brother Watching”. It’s what they can do with the information that can be potentially damaging to consumers in many ways – privacy, marketing information, crash/insurance information, hi-jacking lemon law claims and more. Let’s look at a brief list of what can be done with OnStars’ capabilities. First, under state lemon laws, “repair attempts” are defined as when the customer presents the vehicle with the issue to the authorized dealer for warranty repairs, and it’s written up on a “Repair Order”. On-Star benefits the manufacturer and derails the consumer from getting their right to a documented repair. OnStar diagnostics can actually reset (shut off) a dash warning light that would otherwise be a “repair attempt” visit to the dealers’ shop – which would be used towards a lemon law claim. OnStar “conveniently” diagnoses the cars ‘issue’, and extinguishes it, removing the car owner’s right to a documented repair at the dealership. Next is a vehicle owners right to privacy. Privacy? – The OnStar’s GPS knows exactly where you are at all times. Don’t believe it? Recently, it has been rumored that OnStar has changed its terms and conditions to allow sale of vehicle location and speeds to interested third parties such as law enforcement agencies. Who’s and what’s next? Will driving habits, restaurants visited, and other “places of interest” from the OnStar’s data base of destinations and OnStar “call-in’s” be sold to third-party marketers and advertising agencies? Will the crash data be used by the automobile manufacturer against the consumer in product liability/personal injury/wrongful death crash cases, buttressing their legal defense against plaintiff’s claims? It is a fact that we only know of OnStar’s capabilities of what the auto manufacturer, lets us know. It is theoretically possible for OnStar to be remotely activated by malicious third parties or under government order. This would enable third parties to track the location of the car. This is constantly being challenged, but the real question remains “just how far can it go?” in taking private information, and how it’s used? We just don’t know. In 2011 OnStar announced that it would start retaining all the information collected by the GPS and internal system, so that it could be sold to third parties. Although this data is supposed to be “anonoymized”, it remains unclear exactly what they mean by this, as it is extremely difficult to anonoymize GPS data. I am following this to see if the data has been opened up to third parties already, or is scheduled to – and when.

So, how should consumers view OnStar? Only the consumer can make that determination and choice. For myself, I have “Google Maps” on my phone with driving directions for free (instead of OnStar routing), I can call Roadside Assistance or a tow-truck with my cell phone if I break down. Now, if I get in a crash without OnStar I would not have the benefit of EMS, but then does it usually take more than 2 minutes for other motorists to call 911 when they see an accident? Are we endearing ourselves to the idea that WE will be the tiny percentage of consumers that crash our cars in a remote area without other motorists viewing it?

I for one am very, very concerned with what can potentially be done with the information OnStar collects and stores. What’s next? If you are late on car payments, will OnStar give the location coordinates to the repossession company for the financial institution that holds title on your current loan?

These make interesting thoughts to ponder. Should you be concerned? This writer thinks so….