OnStar is helping GM plan for an autonomous-car future

The 20-year-old concierge service is also a data-gathering goldmine.

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General Motors has been on a tear lately. The automaker recently invested $500 million in Lyft and acquired both self-driving startup Cruise and ride-share company Sidecar. And that's all since January. But there's one thing that GM has had for years that might give it an edge over the competition: OnStar.

OnStar is GM's in-car concierge and safety system. The on-demand service offers turn-by-turn directions, vehicle diagnostics, road-side assistance and, in the case of an accident, crash response. But it's also a window into how drivers get around. "We have millions of vehicles on North American roads that can be connected and controlled," GM Executive Director of Urban Mobility Peter Kosak told Engadget.

With more than a billion interactions in its 20-year history, it's an LTE-connected data-gathering machine that should be the envy of every automaker. In fact, GM is working with Mobileeye to create precision maps to be used by autonomous vehicles.

The company is also using OnStar's network in its new car-sharing service, Maven. Kosak says all the vehicles available to rent will be OnStar-enabled. In particular, he hopes OnStar features like the ability to unlock and start a car using your smartphone, and CarPlay and Android Auto integration will set the service apart from competitors like Zipcar.

OnStar will also give GM data on how to deploy a fleet of vehicles in a way that optimizes user needs by learning when and where cars will be needed most. It'll do this by tracking usage in real-time, and analyzing that data and historical information to determine where to have cars waiting for drivers. For example: If people in a given neighborhood routinely rent cars on Saturday mornings to go the park, Maven will make sure cars are available in that area at that time. That's exactly the sort of insight an autonomous fleet needs.

Still, the OnStar story is also a cautionary tale. In 2015, security researcher Samy Kamkar unveiled OwnStar, a hack that allowed him to remotely unlock and start OnStar-enabled vehicles. GM eventually patched the vulnerability, but it's a reminder that the smarter cars get, the more susceptible they are to these sorts of exploits.

A world in which autonomous cars move us around cities is almost certainly coming. Google may have helped kickstart the evolution of driving, but carmakers are making sure they won't be left behind as technology and cars continue to become more intertwined. GM wants desperately to be part of that future and is working faster than it's ever worked to ramp up its technology teams and deploy new cars (the Chevy Bolt went from planning to unveiling in three years). That said, the company might just have given itself a leg up 20 years ago, back when it added that little blue button to its vehicles.