At first, I get paranoid: Does the tiny microphone attached to the roof near the rear-view mirror transmit everything I say? Is there a camera, too? Do they always know where I am? The two sales representatives who brought the vehicle to my office, a couple in their 50s who might have beamed down from Troy, Michigan, with the sleek black Oldsmobile Aurora they were leaving behind, asked me to sign a release that promised only two things: that I would not drive the car to Mexico, and that I would not use it for “political purposes.” Considering that my lingering hippie ethics still dictate that everything I do is political, should I even be driving this car at all?
In the name of research, I press the button marked “OC” on the cellular phone mounted between the driver and passenger seats, which speed-dials General Motors' OnStar Center in Troy. At the center, attendants equipped with computerized maps track OnStar-wired vehicles using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology. The Department of Defense launched the 24-satellite constellation that guides GPS way back in 1993, and declared it fully operational in 1995; it's been popping up everywhere from sailboats to rental cars ever since, linked up to CD-ROM maps and voice-activated computers. But OnStar is the only interface to boast a human dimension: Instead of looking at a map yourself, you get to talk to someone looking at a map. And when looking at a map is useless – say you're wrapped around a tree in Big Bear, or fixing a flat on the freeway at 3 a.m. – the human summons help. With or without your consent.
“Do you know where I am?” I ask the first guy who gets on the line, a friendly young man who sounds both uncertain and eager.
“Uh, yeah,” he says, “you're at Sunset and Highland in Los Angeles!”
“And do you know where I am all the time?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when I'm not on the phone. Do you know where I am if I don't call you?”
“Oh, well, no,” he informs me. He's a little defensive, as if I'm accusing him of failing me somehow. “We can't know where you are all the time. You have to call us. But if, like, the airbags go off or something, then the car calls us, so then we do know where you are.”
“Oh, good,” I say. “But you can't hear me if I don't call you.”
“No,” he says. “Sorry.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
“Sure. Anything else I can help you with?”
“Yeah.” I figure while I've got him on the line I'll test the system's powers. “Can you tell me how to get to the airport?”
And he's totally stumped – it's as if I've asked him to name the digits in the latest Mersenne Prime Number.
“Hmmmm,” he says. “What street is it on?”
That's not to proclaim the OnStar system useless; in fact, I can think of lots of instances when a driver would be glad to have it aboard. In a city where most people spend half their time isolated within their cars, OnStar functions as a companion; and in a city where visitors come saturated with rumors of crime, to have OnStar in the car must feel like driving with a guardian angel: If you lock your keys inside the car, one call to an 800 number and an OnStar employee can let you in by remote control. If you forget where you parked in the Century City Shopping Center, a human at that same number knows how to get your horn honking and lights blinking until you find it. (Never mind the neighbors, I gotta find my car! ) If you have engine trouble, or just run out of gas on a dark, de-serted road in a really scary neighborhood, you don't have to wait for AAA. The attendants at OnStar can even diagnose your engine from where they sit, or so they say. But one of them got noticeably annoyed with me when I asked if she could tell how much gas I had left. (“How could I know that?” she snapped as politely as people who snap can. “Is there something wrong with your fuel gauge?”)
Attendants will also talk to you about the weather, suggest a radio station for traffic reports or point you toward the nearest Dairy Queen. But they're not Angelenos, which means that Santa Monica Boulevard west to the 405 freeway south looks to them like a wise route to the airport from Hollywood on a Friday afternoon. And they're not computers, which means that if you have any integrity at all, you're obliged to respond to such advice with decorum – you can't just say, Are you kidding, you idiot? as you might with the Pentium on your desktop. And after 72 hours of being given unsolicited information about the rain in Detroit, advised to consult KNX 1070 (not the far superior, if you ask me, KFWB 980), and directed to Dairy Queens in Tarzana when I was on La Brea near Venice, I no longer wanted to chat with a human. I wanted the human to get out of the way and let me swear at the screen in private.