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Electronic gadgetry could put your car in a telling situation

You may have the right to remain silent.

But be advised that your car is back at the shop spilling its guts to the authorities.

Thanks to an age in which bytes substitute for brains, the vehicle you drive can tell others a lot about you, though thanks to the legal profession, it can blab only if you give it permission _ in writing and notarized.

Mark Hogan, president of eGM, the automaker's electronic commerce operations, recently gave an update on contrivances in or soon to be in cars and trucks.

One was a shocker.

Your car can tattle on you through electronic gadgetry ranging from General Motors' OnStar emergency communication system, which employs global positioning satellites to keep track of the vehicle 24/7, to sophisticated "black boxes" under the hood that investigate mechanical goings-on.

So, your Malibu is going to squeal when you kick week-old fries under the front seat?

"Insurance companies have contacted us about providing them with information on the driving patterns of those they insure," Hogan said.

"The car can tell how far and fast you travel and where you travel. The information would go to the insurance company, but only if the consumer wants in order to obtain lower premium rates," he said.

"The thinking is that there's no reason for a person to pay higher insurance rates when all they do is drive around Barrington rather than if they are out on the expressways every day," Hogan said.

Hold it. What if the insurance company wants the information so it can raise your rates?

"It's a privacy issue. If you wouldn't want us to interact with the insurance company, we wouldn't do it. It's called permission marketing," Hogan said, meaning that you don't have to go along with the program, which he emphasized is in the talk stages now.

Another example of permission marketing, Hogan said, involves a program planned by GM beginning this fall for those with vehicles equipped with OnStar.

In addition to calling for mechanical or medical help and using GPS to pinpoint your location, OnStar performs a variety of other functions, from unlocking your car if you leave the key inside to locating the car.

In recent weeks, Hogan said, OnStar was used to find a man who kidnapped a child left in a Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle outside a store in San Francisco. OnStar's GPS not only traced the vehicle to a large parking lot nearby, it also set off the lights and horn to summon police.

Though hopefully you won't need OnStar to track down your stolen car too often, it can alert you, with the help of the check-engine light, to the cause of a "check engine" warning light.

OnStar electronically plugs into your computer to advise that the light flashed on because you're low on oil and need service or that the bulb was faulty and the dealer should replace it.

Starting this fall, OnStar subscribers can have an electronic diagnosis performed on their vehicle every few weeks while they drive to let them know all is well or that an oil change, tuneup or major/minor repair is needed. OnStar also will keep tabs on service bulletins to alert customers of potential problems.

In other words, rather than call OnStar only when you feel the need, OnStar will call you when it feels the need.

"By using the vehicle's onboard computers, the OnStar adviser reads trouble codes to check for problems. We plan to have the service available by the end of the year. The idea is to provide peace-of-mind driving," Hogan said.

But this is another example of permission marketing. The consumer has to authorize OnStar to perform the service because some consumers will object when told they need a tuneup or oil change and figure it's just the automaker trying to generate business.

GM offers OnStar in 32 of its 54 vehicles. Since first offered five years ago with 20,000 customers, it has grown to 1.3-million subscribers, with expectations of 4-million by the end of 2003.