- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

NEW YORK — Toyota said last week that it plans to roll out new safety and driver-assist programs on certain Toyota and Lexus models beginning late this summer.

That marks the first major competition for Detroit-based General Motors’ OnStar service since it started 12 years ago.

The Japan-based automaker said the Toyota and Lexus versions will offer safety systems, while the Lexus version also includes driver convenience features such as directions to nearby destinations and a voice command program that can be used to control everything from the vehicle’s satellite radio to its climate control system.

Jon Bucci, vice president of advance technology for Toyota Motor Sales, said the new telematics programs are the product of the automaker’s previous experience in Japan and years of work to develop its own proprietary technology for the United States.

“We think this is a vital link to our customers,” Mr. Bucci said. “It’s part of nurturing the relationship with our customers and finding where the value of the brand can be increased and grown in different ways.”

With the launch, Toyota enters a market long dominated by OnStar, which has about 5.7 million subscribers. BMW and Mercedes-Benz also offer similar services, but not on the scale of OnStar.

“It’s not a surprise,” OnStar President Chet Huber said of Toyota’s announcement. “Frankly, if there was a surprise it’s: What’s taken so long for those folks to get their technology to get to the point where they can launch some base services?”

Like OnStar’s basic package, the safety systems for both Toyota and Lexus brand vehicles notifies a response center if the vehicle’s air bag goes off, or if it’s involved in a severe rear-end crash.

Both services also include GPS tracking to find the vehicle if it’s stolen and a special button that can be used to call for help in case of an emergency or contact roadside assistance if the vehicle breaks down.

That’s where the similarities end. The basic OnStar system also includes hands-free calling, a diagnostic system that checks vehicle systems and a remote door unlocking system.

An upgraded package also includes turn-by-turn directions and information about nearby services such as gas stations and restaurants. About 25 percent of OnStar customers opt for the upgraded services, Mr. Huber said.

Mr. Huber said in the years since OnStar was first introduced, it’s continued to add services, and as a result, customers. He pointed to new technology that allows call center operators to determine how bad a crash may be and an upcoming version that will allow OnStar to remotely slow a stolen vehicle to a stop.

Mr. Bucci said Toyota opted against including a traditional hands-free phone, citing the use of Bluetooth technology in most vehicles, and noted that drivers can call for emergency help through the system’s “SOS” button.

Some of the other OnStar features - including a destination assist program to help drivers find nearby points of interest such as restaurants - will be included in the package for Toyota’s luxury Lexus vehicles.

Mr. Bucci said Toyota opted to not include the driver-assist features in the package for the Toyota brand vehicles because research showed that the brand’s drivers might not be willing to pay for them.

Mr. Bucci also touted the Lexus system’s eDestination feature, which will allow drivers to upload up to 200 personalized destinations through the Lexus Web site to the vehicle’s navigation system and save them to folders in an electronic library for future use.

In addition, the system features a flexible voice recognition system that can be used to control many of the vehicle’s systems and understands a driver’s casual speech so it doesn’t require specific voice commands.

Mr. Bucci said it will release the pricing for its Toyota brand and Lexus packages closer to their late August launch. OnStar’s base safety package starts at $18.95 a month or $199 a year for 2007 model year and newer vehicles. The upgraded package runs $28.90 a month or $299 a year.

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