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GM Updates OnStar

General Motors Co. says it is revamping the computer system that runs its OnStar safety system, giving it better voice recognition so drivers can use verbal commands to safely stay connected to the Internet.

"We see Onstar at GM as being a key strategic asset that arguably has been under-marketed in the past," says Onstar's new President Chris Preuss.

Preuss telling WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert that Onstar, which made it's debut in the mid-90's has to re-invent itself for an era of smart phones, and people that want to live connected lives.


(Hear Jeff Gilbert's interview with Chris Preuss on  today's Worldwide Automotive Report.)

"Everybody's got a device, they are carrying their media with them.  We think that vehicles are going to have to be very accomodating to that."

So, as part of the update, Onstar's  branding much of its dashboard electronics as ``OnStar MyLink'' in an effort to better compete with Ford Motor Co.'s Sync system that was developed with Microsoft Inc.

Preuss said people want to stay connected, and the improved voice recognition system will allow them to do it safely. For instance, in a few months, the change will let the system read cell phone text messages to drivers. They also can use a button on the steering wheel to send one of four preset replies.

And they'll be able to listen to messages from the social media site Facebook, as well as update their Facebook status by speaking in the car.

Preuss said the voice system is still being tested for safety, but OnStar has data showing there is no correlation between pushing a single button and vehicle crashes.

"It is something they want," said Preuss.  "It makes a better situation for distracted driving, not a worse situation.  The question, again, is how you do it and how you get the user interface refined.  That's really where we want to spend the time now."

Preuss said OnStar operators have been trained to give medical advice when a 911 dispatcher is unable to do it. He also said the company is looking to apply its crash response system, where operators call to check on a driver when airbags are set off, to boats, motorcycles and even bicycles.

Onstar plans to continue charging a subscription fee for its core safety services, which GM sees as something that gives it an advantage.  But with many services, like Ford's Sync, coming without a charge, Onstar is looking at making some technologies available without a fee.

Preuss says they've been told by General Motors leadership that one of Onstar's primary missions is to attract people to GM vehicles.

"There's a lot of capabilities in the vehicle that are enabled by having Onstar resident on the car," Preuss said.  We could provide more value to customers.  Sure, those may come without a subscriptoin in the future."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert contributed to this story.

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