By Mike Wendland
The Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — Starting next year, 1.7 million General Motors vehicles will be equipped with a new technology that will allow police, pursuing a stolen vehicle, to get GM's OnStar service to disable the accelerator and slow the fleeing vehicle to a gradual stop.
With more than 30,000 police chases each year resulting in 300 fatalities and about 7,500 injuries, this unique use of the OnStar technology is being hailed by a wide variety of law enforcement and emergency response organizations.
"This is very, very significant," says Col. Peter Munoz, director of the Michigan State Police. "This will save lives and prevent many injuries. No doubt about it."
Called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, it will be part of the basic $199-a-year OnStar subscriber package in an upgraded version of OnStar to be built into 2009 GM vehicles.
Twenty models will be involved the first year. OnStar President Chet Huber says it will spread into all GM models over the next couple of years.
It cannot be retrofitted for the current 5 million OnStar subscribers.
"What this technology does is stop the vehicle," Huber says. "The fleeing driver cannot continue. It automatically disengages the drivetrain, which means the accelerator stops working. That ends the high-speed pursuit. It disconnects the horsepower. Just like that."
OnStar estimates that once it becomes widespread, about 600 vehicles trying to elude police will be slowed by the system each year.
Huber said the company would be willing to discuss licensing the technology to other automakers in an effort to reduce the number of police chases and save lives.
I got a chance to test the technology Friday at the GM Proving Grounds in Milford.
Driving a Chevrolet Tahoe equipped with the system, I was slowed from about 55 m.p.h. to a virtual standstill about 2 minutes, 20 seconds after GM engineers sent an electronic signal to the Tahoe.
Further, an electronic voice came through the Tahoe's entertainment system speakers advising me that my vehicle was being stopped at the request of law enforcement and to pull over and surrender.
Although the electronic pulse sent by OnStar disabled acceleration, the engine kept running, power steering and power braking remained operable and I had complete control of the car. I just couldn't keep moving forward.
Sound a little Big-Brotherish?
There are limitations. First, OnStar subscribers can opt out of the system, choosing not to have the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown capability activated. Huber says company research, though, shows 95% of OnStar users are in favor of it.
"People do not want their stolen vehicles to be used as instruments of harm," he said.
The system works only on vehicles that have been reported as stolen. Existing OnStar service, using global positioning satellites and cellular phone technology, already can locate any vehicle with an activated OnStar system.
Each month, about 700 such requests to locate a stolen vehicle come into OnStar, says the company. The new service will enable police who are in sight of a stolen vehicle that is fleeing and refusing to pull over to get OnStar to bring it to a safe stop.
Matt Przybylski, director of systems engineering for OnStar, says once police are behind a fleeing vehicle, they will ask OnStar to confirm that they have the correct vehicle in sight by remotely sending a signal that will blink its lights.
"Only then do we begin the remote slowdown," Przybylski said. "The signal we send out is like the same one we send to unlock the doors when subscribers lock themselves out of their car. Only this one interacts with the powertrain and reduces engine power, gradually slowing the vehicle down."
What about other high-speed pursuits when a vehicle has not been stolen?
Huber says the system won't be able to help in those cases because OnStar needs to have the exact electronic signature of the vehicle. "That can only come from the subscriber who notifies us his car has been stolen," he said. "We can zoom in on that car quite fast. But there are too many variables at play to let us just pick out any vehicle and slow it down."
Besides State Police Director Munoz, OnStar brought to the Milford demonstration representatives from various emergency service groups.
"Our people are often the first on the scene when a police pursuit ends tragically," said Jim Harmes, immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "This technology will greatly improve the odds of a favorable outcome when police are called to recover a stolen car."
Of the 1.7 million 2009 models to get the system next year, about 1 million will be Chevrolets. Because the system has yet to be deployed, OnStar says, it is too early to know whether insurance companies may give policy owners a price break if they have it activated.
Copyright 2007 Detroit Free Press
New GM system should curb police chases