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From OnStar to Super Cruise: Evolution of in-vehicle subscription services


The year was 1996 and General Motors was launching a new in-vehicle subscription service, called OnStar, for some of its cars and trucks. It seemed cutting edge then. Surely, these connected vehicles with subscription services would hasten in self-driving cars, and we’d be heading toward the Jetsons scenarios as long as we survived Y2K.

Boy were we wrong. We still aren’t anywhere close to flying cars, and there still aren’t true self-driving cars yet (and Y2K was a bust)! But certainly GM was ahead of the times when it launched OnStar 25 years ago.

If you thought, as I mistakenly did, that OnStar had lost popularity, then think again. In fact, subscription services like OnStar are big business for auto manufacturers, and there will be more, not less subscription services in future vehicles.

“Subscriptions are a key part of GM’s growth strategy, as we focus on providing services that our customers enjoy, while keeping them safe and secure on the road,” said Stephanie Obendorfer, OnStar spokesperson. “We’ve expanded beyond the blue button in vehicles to offer the OnStar Guardian app and OnStar Guardian skill for Amazon Alexa, and GM has also expanded into auto insurance with the introduction of OnStar Insurance. OnStar and GM’s Connected Services have 22 million connected vehicles on the road globally and OnStar expects to generate nearly $2B in subscription services revenue in 2021.”

OnStar: 25 years and going strong

OnStar pioneered the way for in-vehicle software-based services. Long before we had over-the-air (OTA) updates to our infotainment systems there was OnStar. In many ways, it was a revolutionary service that greatly influenced the automotive industry and continues to do so today.

Far beyond the push of a button for roadside assistance, here are ways OnStar and GM have expanded the service beyond vehicle-based services:

  • OnStar Guardian app, allowing anyone to have added peace of mind, no matter where they are and regardless of vehicle brand or ownership.
  • OnStar Guardian skill for Amazon Alexa, bringing OnStar’s Emergency-Certified Advisors into the home environment.
  • OnStar Insurance, started in 2020, GM expanded into auto insurance by partnering with OnStar

GM projects a $20-25 billion annual revenue opportunity by 2030 for subscription services through leveraging OnStar and Connected Services, Ultifi platform and OnStar Insurance. Utilifi is GM’s end-to-end software platform designed to unlock new vehicle experiences and connect customers’ digital lives.

It’s all part of bringing the past of OnStar together with the future of the in-vehicle subscription service. The OnStar Safety & Security plan is $29.99 per month.

in-vehicle subscription service

General Motors is expanding the power of OnStar from the vehicle to the smartphone with a new mobile app for OnStar members. The Guardian App can be used by both GM owners and non-GM owners. (Image courtesy of General Motors)

Super Cruise super subscription

GM’s Super Cruise, a hands-free driver-assistance technology, is currently available in six 2022 model-year vehicles, including GMC Sierra and Cadillac Escalade, with plans to integrate it into 22 vehicles by 2023.

But did you know that Super Cruise, and Ford’s closely named BlueCruise are actually an in-vehicle subscription service?

According to GM: “Super Cruise requires a vehicle connectivity plan in order to operate, and that plan is included for three years based on the date of purchase on current products, regardless of whether or not ownership of the vehicle transfers.”

After the included connectivity expires, customers in the U.S. can  purchase  a stand-alone  Super Cruise plan, which is currently priced at $25 per month, or an eligible Connected Services plan that includes Super Cruise. The Super Cruise plan enables the map updates and precise  GPS corrections required for Super Cruise to function, and it also connects the vehicle to an OnStar Emergency advisor in a case where a driver is non-responsive to escalating alerts. 

Ford’s BlueCruise works similarly, and both hands-free driving services are expected to be revenue streams for the auto manufacturers. Why do you think GM has been advertising the Sierra with Super Cruise on TV so heavily?

Sure it’s to show off the cool tech, but they want to get people hooked on it to make more money from it.

More vehicle subscription services coming

Thanks to the groundwork laid by OnStar for more than two decades, GM is poised to take OnStar subscription even further. According to GM, there are several new OnStar-based innovations coming including:

  • In-vehicle personalization
  • Advanced driver assistance systems
  • In-vehicle apps

And thanks to OTA updates, automakers can modify and continually add more features.

“Working with AT&T, GM vehicles will offer 5G cellular connectivity starting in select 2024 model year vehicles,” Obendorfer said. “As the demands on a vehicle’s connectivity increases, this will offer improved, roadway-centric coverage, faster downloads, increasingly reliable over-the-air software updates and more.”

Fleet management services

OnStar even offers subscription services for fleet management companies. OnStar’s Vehicle Insights (OVI) is a fleet management tool that offers data on vehicle conditions and trips, which helps to lower maintenance costs and keep fleets running.

What’s more, OVI is now available for entire fleets, regardless of vehicle make or model year, through a plug-in adapter.

The car as a mobile device

Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions said “in-car services, led by OnStar and SiriusXM, have opened the door to the car as a mobile device. The concept had been floated early on that, like the phone, enough services could be included in a vehicle to make the acquisition free and the monthly charges would more than make up the difference. The market isn’t there yet, but you can obviously see the trend.”

So what’s next then for in-vehicle subscriptions? Fiorani believes it will be almost an a la carte type of service in the future, especially for future electric vehicles.

“With the digitalization of the automobile through electrification, services and product upgrades can be added or switched on remotely by request, or disconnected when the owner fails to pay. Imagine upgrading the range of an electric vehicle for a family vacation or opening up a bit more power to tow a trailer just by subscribing to the feature for a week or even a weekend. And that’s before fully autonomous capability arrives, which could add a whole other level of services and features.”

The bottom line on the in-vehicle subscription service

Between endless streaming services, satellite radio and any number of food subscription services, it seems our modern-day lives are inundated with subscription fees. We seem willing to pay for many things, including conveniences. However, in vehicles, this means we could soon be paying monthly fees for things like heated seats, adaptive cruise control and automatic climate control — things we’re used to having for free.

It makes good financial sense for automakers like GM and Ford to pursue subscription services, but does it make good sense for customer satisfaction?

What do you think about the in-vehicle subscription service? What will you and won’t you pay for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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Jimmy Dinsmore

Jimmy is News Editor for PickupTruckTalk with an expertise in new vehicles. He is also a Ford Mustang historian having authored the book Mustang by Design (available on Amazon). His second book, about the history of Ford's F-Series truck comes out next year.

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