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Ford offers a free alternative to OnStar

Consumer Reports News: January 14, 2008 08:08 AM

One of the most important features of General Motor's OnStar system is its emergency response: If your car's air bags deploy, the system will automatically call for help. And even if you're unconscious, the OnStar operator can locate your car through OnStar's GPS receiver and direct emergency responders to it.

Now, Ford will be offering a similar feature called 911 Assist. Like OnStar, this system automatically dials for help if the car's air bags deploy. But, unlike OnStar, you don't have to pay a subscription fee.

911 Assist, which will be available later this year, is an upgrade for Ford's new SYNC system. Developed with Microsoft, SYNC allows you to wirelessly connect a Bluetooth-enabled phone or other portable device, and control it through voice commands. SYNC is available on about a dozen models already and, according to the company, will be available on most new Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles by the end of 2008. For people that already own a car with SYNC, they will be able to get a free firmware upgrade through a dealership when 911 Assist becomes available.

How 911 Assist works
Once you have set up your cell phone with SYNC, the two will automatically link up through a Bluetooth connection every time you enter the car. If your car is involved in an accident that deploys the air bags, 911 Assist will first wait for 10 seconds to give the driver or a passenger time to manually cancel the call if desired. If not, SYNC will automatically dial 911 through the cell phone.

When the 911 operator answers the call, a pre-recorded message will tell the operator that air bags have deployed. Following the message, an occupant can speak directly with the operator. Or, if this isn't possible, the operator could still locate your car's position either by triangulating the voice signal or, on some phones, by identifying your phone's GPS coordinates.

Ford says that 911 Assist allows you to reach emergency respondents more quickly because you don't have to go through a call-center operator, as with OnStar. But, while OnStar doesn't require the driver to do anything (other than maintain the subscription), 911 Assist puts more responsibility on you to make sure the system can work properly.

First, you have to set up SYNC so that it can connect to your cell phone. You have to make sure your phone is turned on while driving. (Be sure to have a car charger in case the phone's battery goes dead.) You also have to make sure it's able to receive a Bluetooth link. Some people turn the Bluetooth mode off when a connection isn't needed to extend the phone's battery life.    

For an operator to locate your car by GPS coordinates, your phone has to have a GPS receiver (as most new phones do). Plus, on many phones you have to manually put the phone into a mode that lets others see the GPS coordinates. Because some people regard this as a privacy issue, your phone may not be in this mode by default. Like OnStar, you also need to be in an area with cellular coverage.

This is not hard stuff, but you will have to be diligent about making sure all the conditions are right. And if you do, 911 Assist has the potential to be a valuable safety service that doesn't require a subscription fee. 

Rik Paul

See our complete coverage of the 2008 Detroit auto show. And discuss the event in our auto show forum.

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