VERIFY: How much control does OnStar have over vehicles?

A recent high-speed police pursuit that ended with the use of OnStar technology has many questioning just how much control the company has over its vehicles.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Many viewers have sent 12 News questions after a recent high-speed police chase was ended with the use of OnStar technology.

An 18-year-old from California stole his mother’s car and began driving to Arizona. The young man, Devyn Sells, was eventually taken into custody by Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers thanks to technology in the car.

OnStar, in cooperation with law enforcement, was able to send a signal to the car to bring it to an idle speed and allow law enforcement to stop the pursuit.

From “Big Brother” to parking tickets, many viewers of the incident have asked questions revolving around the limits of OnStar and law enforcement’s control in vehicles where the technology is present.

THE QUESTION:

How much control does OnStar have over vehicles and when can they use that control?

OUR SOURCES:

We spoke to OnStar Emergency Services Outreach Lead Sherry Leveque and GM Brand and Global Connected Services Communications Assistant Manager Stephanie Obendorfer.

WHAT WE FOUND:

Let’s start with how OnStar slowed down the stolen vehicle during Friday’s police pursuit.

One of the requirements OnStar must follow before interfering with one of its vehicles is law enforcement involvement, according to OnStar Emergency Services Outreach Lead Sherry Leveque.

“Whenever a vehicle is being treated as stolen and law enforcement is involved, we’re able to provide the location [of the stolen vehicle] to public safety so they can locate the vehicle…or, in this situation, slow the vehicle down,” Leveque said.

Dispatch audio can be heard during the police pursuit of Sells in the Valley, where a dispatcher says that OnStar confirms the vehicle police are following is the stolen vehicle and that the company is sending a signal to slow the car down.

What features can OnStar control in your car?

One user asked 12 News whether OnStar could also remotely speed up a vehicle after seeing the company was able to slow down the vehicle that Sells allegedly stole.

The only way OnStar would have any control of a vehicle would be if it has an active service plan installed. Leveque confirmed that OnStar can’t speed up a car, but the company can control other features, including:

  • Lock and unlock vehicles
  • Locate vehicles
  • Block ignition
  • Slow down

There is no other way OnStar can control a vehicle.

When can OnStar use these features?

The company responds to around 1,500 stolen vehicle requests each month, according to GM Brand and Global Connected Services Communications Assistant Manager Stephanie Obendorfer.

“In partnership with first responders, OnStar can quickly recover stolen vehicles while helping keep the officers and community safe,” Obendorfer said.

Before OnStar can use these features, authorities must first confirm that conditions are appropriate.

The company cannot provide these services unless specific requirements are met by law enforcement, even if police are requesting assistance with a specific vehicle from OnStar.

In other words, OnStar won’t interfere with your vehicle just for not paying parking tickets or having other traffic violations.

“We will only assist law enforcement with locating stolen vehicles and possibly missing persons,” Leveque said. “But, law enforcement must confirm that they are treating the person as missing or the vehicle as stolen, and entering the vehicle into the National Crime Information Center.”

There are other situations where OnStar can provide assistance to police, but Leveque said there are strict legal processes in place which require court orders or subpoenas.

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