New OnStar feature slows down thieves by remotely pulling over stolen vehicles

Jan. 1, 2020
Police embark on about 30,000 high-speed chases in the U.S. per year, resulting in 300 deaths, but a new OnStar feature could place law enforcement in the driver's seat and slow down these stolen cars to avoid unnecessary casualties.
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Police embark on about 30,000 high-speed chases in the U.S. per year, resulting in 300 deaths, but a new OnStar feature could place law enforcement in the driver’s seat and slow down these stolen cars to avoid unnecessary casualties.

GM’s telematics subscription service is rolling out the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown (SVS) feature beginning with select models next year, with plans to eventually accommodate GM’s entire consumer vehicle fleet.

“We’re trying to provide a method that’s hopefully safer than current methods to slow down, stop and recover stolen vehicles that might be in high-speed chases,” says Dan McGarry, engineering group manager at OnStar, which is currently touring the country to offer demonstrations of this service to law enforcement, safety personnel and media, among other interested parties.

OnStar currently offers location assistance to drivers, which can find a lost or stolen vehicle using cellular and GPS technology. The SVS is an active extension of this service, and will be a part of the automaker’s safety and security package moving forward.

“We’re involved in 700 to 800 cases per month where we’re asked to provide location assistance for a stolen vehicle,” adds McGarry. “The difference here is this is a more dangerous type of event than just a standard stolen vehicle.”

The process begins when an OnStar subscriber reports his or her vehicle stolen. OnStar then attempts to locate the car, and if police are nearby when the car is located, and police cannot convince the driver to pull over the vehicle, an OnStar operator double-checks that he or she is indeed pinpointing the correct vehicle through verification of make, model and year, as well as a quick flash of the car’s hazard lights. (McGarry notes that OnStar maintains a data connection with its vehicles at all times.)

Once police officers and OnStar agree that communication has been established with the proper vehicle, the slowdown process ensues: hazard lights are flashed while OnStar communes with the stolen vehicle’s powertrain, which is then incapacitated and the driver’s attempts to accelerate are ignored by the car. Eventually, the stolen car coasts to a stop, a desirable alternative to the ways in which many high-speed chases end.

“We’re in a coast mode,” McGarry clarifies. “You still have all the functions, power brakes, power steering, you can listen to the radio; it’s just when you step on the pedal, there is no reaction to that.”

Once the suspect is apprehended, the police notify OnStar, which resets the vehicle for normal usage.

Like the vehicle locator, the slowdown service also relies on cellular technology and GPS to locate the car, so the OnStar operator is at the mercy of whether or not a cellular signal is available in the area in question. Between GM’s expansive coverage through Verizon and the vehicle’s antenna, though, McGarry says he is optimistic over this feature’s success in upcoming years.

“Even if we can save one of those lives a year, that can make a difference,” he adds.

Expect to see this service on such 2009 models as Chevy’s Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, Avalanche and Impala; the Buick Lucerne; Saturn Vue; and GMC’s Sierra, Denali and Yukon, among other marques. After the first year of subscription service, SVS will cost drivers about $199 a year as part of OnStar’s base package, which also includes remote door unlock and vehicle diagnostics.

The reason GM cannot offer the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown universally across platforms is that this feature goes beyond mere remote communications; SVS involves synchronization with a vehicle’s mechanical elements, like its powertrain.

OnStar currently has about 5.5 million subscribers, according to McGarry.

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