Car Tech 101: How To Test-Drive a Telematics System

Key Features To Look for in a New Car

Car telematics systems such as OnStar offer car owners assistance in case of a crash or in urgent situations such as a natural disaster or medical emergency. They also provide services including navigation and hands-free calling and conveniences, like remote door unlocking and vehicle diagnostics. Now telematics systems have been added to smartphone apps so owners can remotely control functions such as locking the doors or starting the engine.

With so many features and services, it can be difficult to decide if the telematics systems in the new cars you might be considering will suit your needs. The good news is that the hardware for the systems comes built into vehicles and you don't have to pay for it. Plus, a free subscription period is typical. So you can try some features of the system before you have to start paying for them.

If you want more information on the nuts and bolts of telematics systems, read "Telematics System Basics." And if you want to find out about all of the available telematics systems and their features, check out our Telematics Chart. It breaks down the features and services by automaker and also explains telematics terminology. That's helpful, since some features and services have different names but do the same thing.

Once you're ready to shop for a new car, ask the questions below to determine which telematics system is right for you. When you're at a dealer, use our Telematics Checklist to see if the system meets your needs. Finally, "How to Tech Test-Drive Without Dealer Interference" provides tips on how to avoid hassles from a car dealership while you're testing technology in a vehicle.

Security Services

  • Does the system have vehicle collision notification that sends an alert to a telematics command center when a car's airbag deploys or other sensors are triggered? This feature lets the command center call emergency personnel.
  • Does it offer emergency services for events such as natural disasters and critical medical conditions?
  • Can the system dispatch roadside assistance in case of a breakdown? If so, will system operators contact family or friends to let them know your location or that you're running late?
  • Does the system offer stolen-vehicle assistance, such as locating a vehicle using GPS? If so, will it also keep the vehicle from starting once the engine is turned off and gradually slow the vehicle if police are pursuing it?

Convenience Services

  • Does the system offer remote door unlocking? Does it also offer remote door locking?
  • Can the system flash a car's lights and sound the horn in a crowded parking lot to help you find it?
  • Does the system offer turn-by-turn directions even if the vehicle doesn't have a navigation system? If the vehicle has a navigation system, can a telematics operator send it destinations that you've requested?
  • Does the system offer live-operator "concierge" services that give you such things as restaurant recommendations, the location of the nearest gas station and flight information?
  • Does the system have a text-messaging feature that reads texts from a connected Bluetooth phone using text-to-speech technology? Does it also let you dictate texts using speech-to-text technology?
  • Does the system offer vehicle diagnostics and maintenance reminders? If so, how is the information provided and how often? Can it also put you in touch with a dealer to set up service appointments? Does it transmit vehicle diagnostic info to a dealer?
  • Does the system offer hands-free calling (separate from Bluetooth hands-free that uses your own mobile phone)?
  • Does the system provide information for gas stations in an area, as well as fuel prices?
  • Does it offer traffic, weather forecasts, sports scores and stock market information?

Smartphone Apps

  • Does the telematics system offer a smartphone app that lets you remotely control features while away from the car?
  • Does the app allow you to unlock or lock your car's doors?
  • Does the app allow you to remotely start your car's engine?
  • Does the app allow you to flash the lights and sound the horn to locate a car in a crowded parking lot?
  • Does the app show a vehicle's location on a map?

Try Before You Buy
Telematics systems come with a free trial period, so you can try out a service once you've bought a vehicle and decide later if you want to continue paying for it. Unfortunately, once you've bought a telematics-equipped vehicle, you can't swap it out for one with different features. Use this Technology Test-Drive and the other telematics resources in our Car Tech 101 series to make sure you've picked a car with the system that will be right for you.