GM OnStar Explainer

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A driver pressing the OnStar button in their GM vehicle/Image Credit: GM OnStar

Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald

Up until 2021, OnStar was a key differentiator between GM and the rest of the motoring world. If you bought a GM vehicle, you had OnStar, and you typically got the service for free for a year, after which it was a subscription-based platform. So, if you recently bought a Chevy Tahoe, for example, you were getting this additional safety technology as opposed to the OnStar-less Nissan Armada you had been looking at.

Today, if you buy a GM vehicle, like the new Silverado, you’ll still get the same OnStar technology. The familiar button is there in the overhead console, and either pushing it or getting in an accident will trigger the service’s live operators, which can not only help you in an emergency but can act as a concierge service as well.

What Is OnStar?

OnStar has quietly been saving lives since it launched over 26 years ago. One of its most interesting advancements was Injury Severity Prediction (ISP). ISP is an algorithm that analyzes crash information such as the force of an impact, and the direction of the crash, in order to determine the probability of severe injury. Live OnStar Advisors then relay an ISP to the closest 9-1-1 center, which can choose to adjust the level and priority of a response to the crash scene.

First responders at a crash site/Image Credit: GM OnStar

Once it had launched ISP, GM started to study its effectiveness along with the University of Michigan’s International Center for Automotive Medicine (ICAM), led by Dr. Stewart Wang. ICAM conducted research showing how crash data sent from OnStar to 9-1-1 operators can assist first responders.

“Only a subset of all people who have been involved in a crash require the most urgent attention,” said Wang. “This subset consists of those individuals who have sustained serious, life- or limb-threatening injuries. With this data, we are able to much more accurately predict which people might be in this critical subset so that the proper resources can be deployed to rescue them and transport them to the right level of care.” At the time, OnStar was responding to a staggering 5,000 crashes per month. Those calls prioritizing the worst crashes could certainly have saved lives.

How Does It Work?

It all worked exceedingly well, but what if you didn’t buy a GM vehicle? Mobile technology had to catch up in order for GM to offer OnStar as a stand-alone service. That happened in June of 2021, when GM launched its OnStar Guardian app, which allowed anyone with an applicable Apple or Android device to “stay protected and connected” from anywhere, in any vehicle, regardless of manufacturer.

OnStar Guardian App/Image Credit: GM OnStar

Better yet, you can add up to seven family members to your account, and provide all of OnStar Guardian’s services to children, grandchildren, grandparents, and others who could benefit.

The key safety feature is Mobile Crash Response, which uses sensors in applicable smartphones to detect crashes and alert one of GM’s Emergency-Certified OnStar Advisors, sending help even if the driver and passengers are incapacitated.

Features like Location Status include the ability to save and share favorite locations on an embedded map, receiving notifications for departures and arrivals of family and friends. Consider the peace of mind that provides when your son heads home from college on winter break, for example. You’ll know when he departs and when he arrives home, thanks to notifications through the app.

What Do I Get?

OnStar Guardian is available from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Once you’ve opened an account, functions are available in four different plans. The cheapest plan – Connected Vehicle – offers a few features like Remote Key Fob, Voice Service, Vehicle Status, Vehicle Locate, Remote Personalization and On-Demand Diagnostics for $24.99/mo.

Most people are going to opt for Safety & Security, which bypasses this package of features in favor of Automatic Crash Response, Emergency Services, the OnStar Guardian App, Crisis Assist, Roadside Assistance, and Stolen Vehicle Assistance for $29.99/mo.

From there, two other plans blend these packages. Essentials puts Connected Vehicle and Safety & Security together for $39.99/mo. The top-end Premium plan offers everything in Essentials, plus Alexa Built-In, In-Vehicle Streaming Apps, Connected Navigation, and In-Vehicle Data for $49.99/mo.

Is It Worth The Money?

You can make the determination of whether or not the Essentials or the Premium plans are worth the cost. For our purposes, we’re focused on the $24.99 for Safety & Security plan, which is really the meat of what OnStar offers.

The cost of that plan is exactly the same whether you have a GM vehicle with OnStar built-in, or you’re using the app in any other brand of vehicle. If you own a GM vehicle – all the way back to 2006 – you do get a free three-month trial, but other than that, the cost is identical.

Is it worth it? That depends on your very subjective idea of “worth.” If you buy a small black coffee at Dunkin’ every workday, you’re spending $32 a month. For $2 less than the Safety & Security plan, you can have a Platinum XM radio subscription.

But neither of these luxuries is going to automatically dispatch the EMTs when you’re upside down, hanging from the seat belt in a drainage ditch.

Whether you’re driving a GM vehicle or not, the added security and proven effectiveness of OnStar’s live operators is now just an annual subscription away. Especially for parents of teens – who may also want to read the BestRide blog entry on choosing a safe vehicle for a teen driver – it provides a serious measure of peace of mind, no matter what brand of car they’re driving.

Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.