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OnStar Launches New Services, Hopes to Double Size

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With plans to “reconfigure the in-vehicle navigation category,” General Motors’ high-tech OnStar division is rolling out an array of new services and hinting at more to come. All told, it’s part of push by the service to double its subscriber base over the next three years, a move that will see OnStar expand overseas for the first time.

What started out as a simple communications system, designed to let motorists seek help in an emergency, has become a broad menu of in-car infotainment services, ranging from hands-free cellphoning to real-time traffic alerts.

But OnStar officials acknowledged, during a conversation with, that their digital “space” is changing rapidly, and that they face a number of challenges, not the least being low-cost, portable navigation systems that are selling by the millions.

Those portables, from players like Garmin and Magellan, can often be found at prices beginning under $200, while factory-installed navi units more typically start at $1000 and can run up to $2000 or more, depending on vehicle and manufacturer.

To counter that, OnStar recently created a navigation service that doesn’t require a video screen. By calling one of the company’s operators, a motorist can request route guidance, which is then sent to the vehicle and read out, turn-by-turn.

The new OnStar eNav takes that feature a step further by teaming the GM division with Mapquest, the leading online mapping service. When it debuts, in May, OnStar navigation users will be able to go online from their home or office, plug in up to five destinations, and have the pre-planned trips downloaded to their vehicle for later use.

“It’s a natural progression,” said MapQuest Senior Vice President Christian Dwyer, suggesting that eNav makes it easier to pre-plan travel.

At least initially, the service will be offered only on vehicles with OnStar’s turn-by-turn navigation service. But CEO Chet Huber told TheCarConnection that “It’s a very logical assumption” that the MapQuest venture will be offered to those who have GM screen-based navigation systems, as well, “in the very near future.”

To simplify use of those LCD-based navi systems, OnStar is launching another new feature, Destination Download. Today’s navigation systems can be a challenge to program and, in most cases, require a motorist to be parked or standing to enter address information. With Destination Download, an OnStar subscriber will be able to dial into the system’s call center, even while the vehicle is moving and the operator will download routing directly to the onboard navigation system.

“We address the utility of the system while driving,” explained Huber, noting that Destination Download will be offered on 22 GM models when it launches during the 2009 model-year. In addition, the service will allow OnStar to update onboard mapping software.

A third new feature teams OnStar with XM Satellite Radio – which is partially owned by GM. XM NavTraffic will provide constant updates showing traffic conditions in 80 U.S. markets. The system will alert a driver heading into a tie-up and can also provide alternate routing. XM NavTraffic will be available on approximately 80 percent of GM vehicles equipped with screen-based navigation systems.

The three new services should increase the appeal of OnStar, according to Huber, and help it double its current, 5-million subscriber base by 2011, the GM subsidiary predicts.

But OnStar and rival systems – indeed, all built-in navigation systems – are facing some serious challenges from the likes of Garmin, Magellan and even computer-based services, such as MapQuest.

“It’s a competitive world,” acknowledged Huber. “Nobody expects safe harbor, especially in a space like ours.”

Offering advanced services should help OnStar get a leg up on the competition, the company believes, but with the portable providers racing to add new features of their own, the battle is only likely to intensify.
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