- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

General Motors’ OnStar mobile safety, security and communications system has become even more of a safety net for worrywart drivers as it adds more features to its Vehicle Diagnostics service, including help that might result in slightly better gas mileage.

OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics identifies mechanical problems and notifies the owner by e-mail. Now, it is enhancing that system with services that allow drivers to monitor conditions that can affect fuel economy.

OnStar is a safety, security and communication service that is available on more than 50 of GM’s models and includes one year of complimentary service. After that, the basic service, which includes these new bells and whistles, costs $16.95 a month.

A service that started in 1997 as a dealer-installed option on just 1,000 GM vehicles, OnStar now has more than 4 million subscribers and will become standard equipment on most GM vehicles by the end of 2007.

OnStar uses global positioning system (GPS) satellite technology to pinpoint the location of a vehicle and uses a built-in cell phone to link drivers with a service center that is staffed 24/7.

Over the years, GM has added more and more services to OnStar. In the beginning, a major feature was the ability to send help if a vehicle broke down or the driver was lost. If the air bags deployed in a crash, the system would automatically call the OnStar center, which would send help. But OnStar has evolved to include services that diagnose the health of a vehicle and notify owners of the results by e-mail.

The Vehicle Diagnostics service automatically runs diagnostic checks on a vehicle’s four key operating systems: the engine and transmission, anti-lock brakes, air bags and the OnStar system. It collects maintenance and service information and sends a monthly personalized e-mail directly to the owner, providing information such as maintenance reminders based on the vehicle’s odometer reading, remaining engine oil life and outstanding recall notices for safety-related defects.

Or, if owners think something may be wrong with a vehicle’s system, they can request a remote diagnostics check any time by pressing the OnStar button. OnStar advisors perform these on-demand checks for subscribers about 27,000 times a month, the company says.

Now, given the high cost of gasoline, GM has enhanced the Vehicle Diagnostics system by adding features that allow drivers to monitor conditions that can affect their fuel economy: oil life, tire pressures, E85 compatibility and vehicle emissions.

This service can be activated at no extra charge on most 2004 model year or newer GM vehicles equipped with OnStar that have the GM Oil Life System.

It could potentially save money on gas, and some of the features turn a vehicle into a personal assistant that takes some of the hassle out of maintaining a vehicle.

The enhanced oil-life monitoring system will predict the mileage at which the next oil change will be necessary, based on current driving patterns. Monitoring the percentage of remaining oil life has been part of Vehicle Diagnostics since its inception. But now, instead of telling owners that 20 percent of the oil life remains, it will predict an oil change may be needed at 13,200 miles.

And the enhanced tire-pressure monitoring feature means no more checking tire pressures monthly. It will notify subscribers monthly about the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure and the actual reading so that consumers can make small adjustments to the pressures.

“The difference is vehicles with tire-pressure sensors warn you if your tires are dangerously low; they don’t alert you if you are two or three pounds low. The experts will tell you that people should check their tire pressure every 30 days because you can save a little bit of gas by keeping your tires properly inflated,” said Keith Yaden, OnStar communications manager.

E-mail will tell drivers if their vehicles are able to use ethanol fuel and will link drivers to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition where they can find stations that provide E85. Or drivers can press the OnStar button to receive directions to the nearest ethanol station.

The monthly diagnostic e-mail will highlight powertrain emissions data.

Although emissions have been monitored as part of the engine and transmission diagnostics, the information was not one of the areas highlighted, Mr. Yaden said. Now it is highlighted along with the other four systems.

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