Emergency Support

Among the chief selling points of connected autonomous electronic vehicles and emerging transportation services are the promise of significantly improved safety, communications and coordination to improve mobility and the lives of people in local communities. We got a taste of that potential with OnStar and Tesla’s response to the recent hurricanes that wreaked havoc in Texas, Florida and other southeastern states.  

General Motors’ OnStar unit worked with emergency response organizations to help coordinate resources and assistance to people in need in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. With about 200,000 customers in the areas impacted by the storm, OnStar used its four North American call centers in Michigan, North Carolina, Nova Scotia and Ontario to handle overflow calls to 911, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Red Cross and local groups.  

The company says it received about 20,000 storm-related calls during the hurricane and first few days after it hit. In addition to forwarding information to emergency service providers, OnStar provided callers with evacuation routes and helped them find local shelters, book hotel rooms and contact family members.

One frantic caller trapped in his garage shortly after the hurricane made landfall called OnStar to report his house was caving in around him. OnStar immediately routed the call to a 911 operator, who worked with emergency responders to rescue the victim.

Others used their vehicles and OnStar’s wi-fi hotspot as a last resort after losing power and cell phone service—or a waterlogged phone—in their homes. This allowed them to use laptop computers to monitor news sites, send emails and post social media messages.

OnStar also set up a Crisis Assist service for emergency responders to use through the end of September. The service includes operator support and free wi-fi service (provided by AT&T) for as many as seven handheld devices in appropriately equipped GM vehicles.

Tesla, meanwhile, responded to a request from a vehicle owner trying to evacuate Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma. The driver asked Tesla to increase the driving range of his electric vehicle to help him escape the storm on the state’s gridlocked roads without having to stop to recharge the battery.

Tesla was able to remotely increase the range of the vehicle by about 30 miles by making the battery’s full 75-kWh capacity available. Some Model S and Model X owners, who had opted not to pay for the $6,500 upgrade, are limited to 60-kWH of power even though their vehicle has a 75-kWh battery pack.

After receiving the call from one driver, Tesla temporarily (through September 16) extended the range of all its vehicles in Florida. The over-the-air software fix was free to customers and Tesla, which merely had to flip a switch to make it happen.

While the move was a no-brainer for Tesla, the carmaker was faulted by some critics who argued the company never should have restricted the driving range in the first place. With most buyers selecting the higher capacity battery, Tesla stopped selling the lower-power option earlier this year. But the two-tier pricing system gave the company and its customers more flexibility as improvements were made. All new Tesla vehicles also are equipped with the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system, but the feature isn’t enabled unless buyers ante up $3,000 for the option.

Natural disasters often can bring out the best in people as neighbors and communities band together with the help of other altruistic citizens, relief organizations and corporations. Smart cities and connected cars that can communicate with each other and the surrounding infrastructure can greatly improve these efforts and provide immediate help for people in times of trouble. That’s the real benefit of these next-generation technologies.