Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

Chevy Sonic Brake Pad Slip-Up Hghlights OnStar Limitations

by Roger Lanctot | Dec 31, 2011

Embedded telematics systems like OnStar ought to act as the car maker’s wingman, which is defined by Wikipedia as “a pilot who supports another in a potentially dangerous flying environment.” The wingman is most familiar from formations of jet pilots where a second, support flyer flies his plane beside and slightly behind a lead flyer to “watch his back.”

Telematics technology has the ability to fulfill that function, but it isn’t happening yet.

The GM Authority newsletter reports today that General Motors has issued a recall for more than 4,000 2012 Chevy Sonics that have rolled out of the company’s Orion Township assembly plant missing either an inner or outer front brake pad.  The newsletter reports that new Sonic owners can expect a letter in the mail beginning January 14, 2012, which will instruct them to take their Sonic to the nearest Chevy dealer for inspection for missing components.

How GM can have this happen when its cars come equipped with Bluetooth and embedded modems is beyond comprehension.  With the existing on-board technology, GM ought to be able to enable vehicle diagnostics capabilities during, or at least at the conclusion of, the production process to ensure the existence and proper functioning of all on-board systems.

GM probably does not want to provision the on-board modem at the factory and Bluetooth may not be considered sufficiently secure for extracting sensitive and vulnerable vehicle data.  But the value of this information and the service it provides to customers, dealers and management is great enough to justify the added cost of provisioning the modem during production and/or hooking up the Bluetooth to the CAN bus.

The unfortunate truth is that architecturally speaking embedded telematics systems have for the most part been segregated from Bluetooth connectivity systems.  In fact, at GM, the teams responsible for these two connectivity propositions are working in parallel and not entirely in cooperation.

This is why this analyst made a plea earlier this year for a “C-level” executive at every auto maker to act as Chief Connectivity Officer.  ( - Vehicle Connectivity as a C-Level Responsibility – Insight – 3-2011)  The responsibilities of this executive will include embedding connectivity into all systems of the car and all aspects of the organization.

From production, to dealer delivery, to sale, telematics systems ought to be part of the entire car making, selling and owning experience.  This philosophical approach means the telematics system is live as early in the vehicle production process as possible (with GM in the forefront having made OnStar standard on most models).  Plant managers receive OnStar reports throughout the day regarding the status of on-board systems for cars rolling off the line – and managers and developers see the same reports.

The trucks delivering the cars have a wirelessly updated manifest of all the cars they are delivering.  The dealer uses the telematics system as part of his inventory management system and, after the sales of the vehicle, as part of his customer relationship management system.

In the connected world just described, no GM customer is waiting two weeks for a letter to let him or her know there is a missing brake pad on their car.  The plant manager knows or, if he misses it, the truck driver knows or, if he misses it, the dealer knows right away something is wrong with the car.

In contrast, Ford won an award earlier in 2011 ( for its use of Wi-Fi on the production line to provision Sync and MyFord Touch system software and configurations.  This shows yet another innovative way that wireless technology can be used on the production line to save or avoid costs.  (No word on whether Ford is enabling the kind of wireless diagnostics I have described, but they can and should.)

This production line software provisioning, too, ought to be interesting to GM not only because the company has been flirting with adding Wi-Fi to more of its cars, but also because it is struggling with the timing of the launch of its MyLink (Chevrolet) and Intellilink (Buick) smartphone connectivity systems.  Wireless provisioning of these systems might enable GM to bring these solutions to market more swiftly and competitively.


The Chevy Sonic brake pad slip-up ought to have represented an opportunity for GM to show the power of OnStar’s diagnostics capabilities.  The existing OnStar diagnostic report may not detect the presence of a brake pad, although it does report on the status of the anti-lock brake and stability control systems among others. 

The typical OnStar subscriber will certainly want to know how much pad they have left on their brakes. OnStar ought to be adding detection of the brake pads and their status to the existing report.

The good news is that in a world where OnStar is no longer the only telematics player in town, the pressure is on like never before to innovate and leverage the existing (and future) telematics investment to ensure the organization is extracting all possible revenue opportunities and cost avoidance potential out of that embedded modem. 

Telematics ought to be acting as every car maker's wingman, watching for trouble and leaping into action at the first sign.  The potential remains to be tapped and there are riches to be had by those who choose to tap it.


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