Discovering Detroit And The Wonder Of OnStar

The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they're in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The basement lab at OnStar. Apparently they’re in league with Batman! Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

General Motors flew me out to Detroit last week to learn about OnStar, drive some snazzy new Buicks, and explore the city. Yeah, that last one seemed a little iffy since it has something of a reputation these days, so I was curious to see what they had planned for the trip.

The adventure started off with dinner at the Westin Book Cadillac, our home for the duration of the event. We got to meet the other bloggers on the tour as well as folks from General Motors, Buick, OnStar and a representative from the Michigan Economic Council who talked about their Pure Michigan campaign.

The City of Detroit is, and I think everyone knows this, not at its best right now. We all see the same sad images on the nightly news, but what we don’t see is just how much the city has managed to turn itself around. It’s still a vital and very hopeful community that is making a comeback. We were about to see for ourselves just what the city had to offer.

Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
Detroit and the General Motors Building, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

We spent our first full day in Detroit learning about OnStar. I thought I knew what it was, but really, I didn’t have a clue. Since it’s not on my personal vehicle I’d never used the service. In my mind, it was a service available in GM vehicles that would call for help in a crash and provide directions on occasion, but not be something I’d use everyday.

I underestimated its usefulness by about a million miles. First, touring their command center, you see the scope of it all in a new light. The place looks like something out of a sci-fi flick with huge monitors in a secure room that we were able to look at through a giant glass wall.

There’s a live map with dots that show where people are pressing that OnStar button. The dots are even differentiated between those pressing the button for non-emergency assistance, those using it in an emergency, and those who didn’t press the button at all but had it automatically activate due to an accident.

There were a lot of dots on that map.

It was also interesting to see that there were monitors playing various news channels. The reason is so that they can see what’s happening in the world and be prepared for large emergencies, say an earthquake or tornado, and be ready for the increase in calls for help. No matter what happens when you’re in your car, you are truly #ConnectedbyOnStar in every situation.

The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
The OnStar Command Center, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

And that is the thing about OnStar that completely blew me away. These people, from the executives we spoke with to the call center representatives we got to sit with, don’t see their job as giving directions. They see it as helping people. They see it as saving lives.

Sure, they can point you to the nearest gas station or help you find a hotel on a road trip and are happy to take that call, but they do so much more. They told one story about a hunter who was a doctor and accidentally shot himself. His call wasn’t so much for help as it was to track down his wife so he could say goodbye. He was convinced he was going to die.

OnStar was convinced otherwise and they directed help to where he’d parked his vehicle off in the woods. They saved that man’s life and he surely would have died without their help. They’ve also helped people through delivering babies and even stopped attempted suicides.

There’s also a feature called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown and we got to try it out on a closed road. They said, “Drive it like you stole it!” and I hit the gas. A few seconds later, OnStar got the staged police call, my speed decreased and eventually I had no engine power, just braking and steering. Not only will that mean your car is recovered in one piece, but a thief won’t hurt anyone in a prolonged chase.

Get the GeekDad Books!

   

My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of EvolvedMommy.com, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
My partner in crime, Stephanie McCratic of EvolvedMommy.com, Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

The people that take the emergency calls are all specially trained to handle them just like an operator who takes your call when you dial 911. They know what to do, how to work with local authorities to help you, and how to help save your life. It was amazing.

The last day of our trip we had a ridiculously fun scavenger hunt that took us all around Detroit. The idea was to use OnStar to get directions to various locations that had us seeing what we might not otherwise see. I got to drive the new 2014 Buick Regal which I thoroughly enjoyed. You can read my full review of the Buick Regal here.

We stopped at a Whole Foods that was the first grocery story within the city limits, then purchased canned goods we dropped at a food bank in a less fortunate part of town. We also drove to the beautiful Belle Isle and took a picture of Canada over the water.

A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar
A reclaimed abandoned house, part of the Heidelberg Project. Image: Nicole Wakelin #ConnectedByOnStar

Yes, there are areas of Detroit that are as heartbreaking as what you see on television, but our journey around town showed that it’s still a vital city. There are people living and working there who are determined to turn things around and, although it may take awhile, they’re getting it done.

General Motors covered all travel expenses for this trip.