My weekend (not) using the OnStar iPhone app

Last weekend I had a chance to test-drive GM's new OnStar app for iPhone in a 2011 Buick Regal. I barely used the app, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how you look at it.

Liane Yvkoff
Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer who blogs about cars for CNET Car Tech. E-mail Liane.
Liane Yvkoff
6 min read

General Motors recently released a suite of iPhone and Android apps for OnStar and 2011 Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC models as a first step toward improving in-vehicle communications technology. I was eager to take the OnStar MyLink app for a spin in a 2011 Buick Regal during a road trip from New York to Boston, but I was surprised at how little opportunity I had to use it. OnStar's MyLink app is primarily a safety application for emergency situations, so not finding opportunity to use it was a good thing. But if the app is a step toward meeting consumers' increasingly savvy technology expectations, it fell a bit flat.

Judging by MyLink's rating on iTunes, other people felt the same way. An average of 170 reviews yielded a two-star average rating. Granted, dragging down the app's rating were a few dozen one-star ratings from irate OnStar subscribers griping that the app didn't work for their 2007 Cadillac Escalade or other earlier model vehicles. And while I could see their point, it's not fair to trash an app because new technology was released after your purchased your vehicle. However, a dearth of functionality is.

OnStar MyLink has, at best, a bare-bones set of features: It can tell you basic vehicle information, such as the VIN number, oil status, tire pressure, and preferred car dealership--information you might need if you've been in a car accident and need to tow the vehicle for repair. But it doesn't tell you other helpful data, such as the license plate, make, model, or year. Go figure. The OnStar app can act as a very rudimentary trip meter, letting you view the vehicle's lifetime mileage, trip mileage, average fuel economy, fuel levels, and available range, but it doesn't allow you to store additional data for record keeping.

OnStar subscriber data is also available in the app, such as user ID, the vehicle's OnStar phone number (all OnStar equipped vehicles have a SIM card embedded in the vehicle that it uses to connect to OnStar and make phone calls), and how many minutes are left on your monthly OnStar plan (Subscribers purchase 30 to 500 minutes of in-vehicle phone time that they can use to make hands-free phone calls or talk to OnStar operators. Hands- free calls placed using a paired Bluetooth enabled phone do not use OnStar minutes). In a nutshell, the only functionality you get beyond data points is the ability to lock or unlock doors and honk your horn.

The app automates some of an OnStar operator's job. Should I lock my keys in the car, I can launch the app and press a button to unlock my car door. Or, if my future kids decide to be brats and lock me out of my car, I can end that game rather quickly. Best of all, I will never have to wander shopping mall parking lots ever again--with the press of a button, I can remotely honk the car's horn and use it as beacon. Of course, calling OnStar has the same effect, but that costs OnStar minutes. And if I'm ever in a car-related emergency away from the vehicle, the OnStar button doesn't work, or I can't reach it, it's nice to have an alternate way to contact the operators. Prior to the app, I'd need to know OnStar's phone number.

But the app falls short in terms of convenience, and outside of emergency situations, use is limited. On my road trip in the 2011 Buick Regal, I never locked myself out of the car or was curious about tire pressure. The one time I wanted to find out how much fuel was in my tank, I couldn't connect to the vehicle because the car was parked in a subterranean garage. However, I made frequent and liberal use of OnStar's operator assistance to help me navigate the unfamiliar city of Boston, often asking for directions to destinations only blocks away (it's way better than reading a map), and at one point an operator offered to help me make hotel reservations. But half the time I wished the the operators weren't so polite and would just cut to the chase--I wanted the turn-by-turn directions downloaded before the light changed. And other times I would have preferred to look up information myself or get directions to my next destination when I wasn't in my car--things I would have loved to be able to do in the OnStar app.

In addition to data points, the OnStar MyLink enables you to honk the vehicle's horn, lock and unlock doors, and on some models, remotely start the car.
In addition to data points, the OnStar MyLink enables you to honk the vehicle's horn, lock and unlock doors, and on some models, remotely start the car. OnStar

That said, it's important to note that OnStar excels at what it's designed to do: provide on-the-spot, hands-free directions, communication, and information. But only when you're in the car. Well, that's not entirely true. Using the MyLink app outside of the car, OnStar operators would be more than happy to chat with you regarding whatever needs you present, but they won't be able to send directions to your vehicle unless you're already in it. And while you can send destinations from your computer to your vehicle's Virtual Advisor using Google Maps' or Mapquest's "Send To Car" feature, iPhone map applications don't have that capability.

Why is this important? Walking around, I tend to use Yelp to help me find where I want to go. Using my mobile phone, there's no way for me to look up an address using my phone and send the destination to my vehicle. Calling OnStar wouldn't help because advisers can't send the directions to the car unless I'm in it, and sometimes talking to an operator it's more hassle than its worth, forcing me to engage in chitchat when I'm in a hurry. Other times, it's embarrassing ("Hello operator, I'd like directions to Centerfolds in Boston Massachusetts"). And although I'm sure they hear this all the time, I can imagine that no one wants to admit to a complete stranger that they need help finding their car.

This lack of integration, functionality, and automation is where the app falls short, and relegates it to the "nice to have" category. The OnStar app is great as a safety tool to help you out in a pinch, but as it's stands, it not an app you're going to use on a daily basis (or you shouldn't have to use it on a daily basis). Bells and whistles aside, the OnStar app could go further in helping you maximize existing service features. For example, subscribers can save up to 30 preset numbers in the OnStar system and assign voice tags for hands-free calling, but the app doesn't allow you to add or edit any of these phone numbers. Until the operator offered to make hotel reservations for me, I didn't know that was an option, which got me wondering, what other services was I missing out on? A tip sheet on OnStar capabilities would have been a helpful addition to the app.

I understand that first and foremost OnStar is a safety technology, but consumers are starting to demand more convenience and entertainment features from their vehicles--not just a security net. GM is heeding that request and is testing a new feature that will enable subscribers to update their Facebook status using OnStar while in the car, and the new MyLink apps for brands add a few more bells and whistles. For example, the MyBuick app has the vehicle user manual, explains alerts, and enables you to drop a pin on a map in the app indicating where you parked your car. You're also able to set a timer letting you know how much meter time you have left and add photos to that location. Of course, you have to remember to do that in the first place.

But despite OnStar's limited use and primitive functionality, I would definitely download the app for "just in case," which is why you become an OnStar subscriber in the first place.

And if the application engineers are reading, here are five features I'd like to see in the next generation of the app:

1) Add and edit preset destinations phone numbers to my OnStar profile
2) Enter destinations in the app to send to Virtual Advisor
3) Pull destinations from Virtual Advisor or my profile into the app
4) Locate my vehicle using the app
5) Tips on OnStar capabilities