OnStar/Google vs. Ford Sync

By Doug Newcomb

(May 2010) In one of the worst-kept secrets from last week, OnStar has announced that it's partnering with Google to use the search giant's Android operating system and mobile devices to connect owners to the Chevy Volt.

Earlier this year, OnStar unveiled a demonstration-only app for specific smartphones that will allow users to remotely check the charging status of the Volt plug-in hybrid, among other things. As part of its new partnership with Google, OnStar will unveil new features of the Android app at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco this week. But here's what we know for now.

OnStar is adding a "navigation" tab to the home screen of the Android app that will allow Volt owners to view the location of their vehicle on Google Maps as well as their location relative to the vehicle. Owners can also use the voice-search feature that's part of an Android phone's Google nav app to search for destinations and see where the destination is relative to the Volt's location. They can also choose to send the destination from the Android phone to the Volt and have navigation handled by OnStar's Turn-by-Turn feature.

The new Android app functionality won't be available when the Volt launches later this year, however. It's part of what OnStar is calling a 2.0 version. When the rumor broke last week that Google was OnStar's star technology partner, the hook-up was characterized as a Sync killer, in reference to Ford's successful technology platform. But this comparison ignores several significant differences between the two.

For one, Ford was smart to link the launch of Sync to its base-model Fiesta and also make the system available almost across its model line. Not only is the Google partnership limited to what will likely be a low-volume vehicle, it also leaves owners of non-Android phones out of the loop on these enhanced features, whereas Sync is largely phone-model agnostic. And Sync comes sans a subscription for the first three years, whereas an OnStar sub kicks in after a year.

Plus, Sync started out with robust iPod and Bluetooth phone integration as a solid base, and has since added OnStar-like features such as 911 Assist and Vehicle Health Reports as value-added features. And you don't even need a smartphone to use or appreciate these features; just an MP3 player or Bluetooth phone.

But you do need a smartphone to take advantage of the apps Ford, OnStar and other automakers are rapidly developing. And since Sync has been around for almost three years now, getting together with Google could help GM and OnStar get up to speed faster. And the partnership certainly positions GM as forward-thinking tech company.

One of the big questions is whether OnStar will move away from an embedded system approach and whether the telematics service will also move towards an open-source approach that the Android system is built on -- and that Ford is openly courting. And, from a consumer's standpoint, whether this will mean more choices and more features for less money.

That's the way it is in consumer electronics, and that's the model Ford has used to great success. And that has benefited consumers.