Big Brother's Watching, And Helping Drivers

Consider Cadillac's new OnStar system as Big Brother.

When you need help, Big Brother takes care of you. When you need advice, he'll share his wisdom. When you mess up, he'll set you straight.

But one thing's for sure, no matter where you are or what you do, Big Brother will know.

"OnStar is about being connected in your car," says Chet Huber, manager of General Motors' new OnStar division.

Say you lock your keys in your car. With a quick call to the OnStar center in Michigan, an operator can unlock the doors - even if you're in Miami.

Or if you're low on gas, one button will summon a cheerful OnStar operator who pinpoints your location, searches a vast database, and tells you whether you can make it to the next town. He can even detail the number of gas stations, the brand, and the quality of local eateries.

If you have an accident, severe enough to deploy the car's air bags - the operator is automatically summoned, and through the car's stereo speakers, asks if everyone's all right. If he gets no response, he calls an emergency response team with exact directions to your location.

THE system essentially lets the car tell its problems to a satellite, which talks to an operator in Michigan, who uses a cellular phone to talk to the driver or the police, etc. For example, anytime the alarm goes off, the car reports itself stolen to OnStar, which tracks it and alerts police.

OnStar is available in all 1997 Cadillacs for $895, plus installation and $22.50 a month. (Purchase price and installation are free through the spring.)

General Motors plans to introduce the system on all Buicks, and at least one car each from the Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet, GMC Truck, and Saturn divisions next year.

Similar systems are available from other automakers - notably RESCU in Ford's Lincoln brand - and on the aftermarket for used cars.

On Guard by ATX Research is almost as comprehensive as OnStar. But "almost" leaves out a lot of ground. It lacks the air bag deployment notification and OnStar's database of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other services.

GM has more goodies in the wings, including repair information. OnStar will dial up the car's On Board Diagnostics system (OBD II) for updates on key electronic and mechanical systems.

Then Big Brother will tell you what repairs are urgent and which ones can be put off.

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