OnStar On Board?

The marine industry finds OnStar-type technology elusive.

"OnStar, how may I help you?"

The voice at the other end of the line is always soft, friendly and reassuring (at least, in the advertisements). Lost on a back road in the middle of nowhere, you may breathe again, settle into the soft leather seat of your Cadillac Escalade and be sure OnStar will get you back on track. Having engine problems, too? Relax. The system automatically responds to overheating and low oil pressure. Locked out while using your cell? No problem. OnStar will unlock your doors for you by remote control.

Drivers who routinely travel far from home are among the system's growing fan base, with about a million customers estimated by the end of 2000. General Motors plans to expand OnStar into other divisions, the system will be standard on all 2001 Saabs and soon, you'll be able to order it on a variety of Hondas. The idea that you can do most anything-from receiving emergency help to sending your wife an anniversary bouquet-while cruising along unfamiliar territory is certainly tempting. In fact, the idea sounds near-perfect not only on land, but for yachtsmen of all stripes.

Why, then, isn't anything like OnStar available on the water?

The marine industry is dancing around the concept with a variety of programs, some with more potential than others. The latest technology designed to enhance the cruising experience certainly holds promise, but there are definite reasons boating advancements in this area lag behind those on land.

Manufacturers build OnStar directly into cars. The system requires a cellular phone, a computer and internal wiring to handle commands that range from performing diagnostics to ordering theater tickets to locating your car by GPS. If your airbags deploy, an OnStar representative will call to see if you are all right and send help, if needed. The top-of-the-line system at the time of this writing cost about $700 a year, some of which funds the staff and facilities needed to help you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

In theory, the service could translate into the marine world fairly easily. In practicality, it's likely to be a long time coming. OnStar itself has no current interest in marine applications. The boat market is much smaller than the car market, and the company's growth in the latter is enough to keep its hands full. Staffing its current system with high-quality women and men has been a struggle, according to OnStar representatives, and finding marine specialists wouldn't be easy.

The closest thing yachtsmen can get today is the Platinum Performance system created three years ago by Volvo Penta of the Americas and Carver Yachts. All Volvo Penta owners are enrolled for free during their warranty period, and afterward, Volvo charges $50 per breakdown.

If you have trouble on the water, the program lets you call a toll-free number answered by a "coordinator" 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Several companies, including Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel, have such hotlines for questions. The difference with Volvo is that call, plus the push of a Voice/Data button on your bulkhead panel, lets the coordinator run engine diagnostics, review data (including battery, coolant and oil temperatures and pressures, engine retardation and manifold pressure) and diagnose your boat's problem. "The coordinator will be able to advise you on the correct course of action: continue, motor in for service, or stop and request a tow," said Jens Bering, a Volvo Penta senior technician who spent a year at Carver developing the system.

The coordinator can also provide on-the-spot technical support. For example, if the engine exhibits a high coolant temperature and won't exceed 2500 rpm, the remote diagnosis can confirm whether the engine has automatically dropped into a precautionary mode. "The coordinator would run the diagnostics, then talk you through possible solutions," Bering said. "He may ask you to determine if there is a blockage around the water intake or ask if there is water flow in your exhaust. If full water flow can be restored, the technician can even instruct you on how to reset the computer so you can resume normal cruising speed."

If the coordinator can't solve the problem, the call is directed to technical staff in the Volvo Penta service department. If you need a part, the database finds the nearest dealer, calls ahead with the preliminary diagnosis and supplies a "parts-probably-needed" list. The service can also arrange for a tow.

The difference between Volvo Penta's program and OnStar is that the marine technology stops at your engines. The coordinator can help you once you get to him, but not much more. With OnStar, the coordinator can help you with your car, give you directions home and make sure your seats are reserved for that evening's front-row performance. The Volvo technician has probably never even heard of the theater.

That's where advances in navigational software fit in. What the marine industry has yet to figure out is how to incorporate some of the things going on at Volvo with some of the things going on at Navioncs, C-Map, Nobeltec, Maptech and Garmin.

The best of today's navigational software lets your GPS plotter display information about shoreside facilities-marinas, stores, restaurants and medical centers. Such software helps you find the place you're looking for, gives you its phone number and provides a list of services that used to be found only in cruising guides. During the past few years, street maps have become available as supplements.

Still, all this falls into the category of self-help. You have to research and call each of the facilities yourself, instead of having an OnStar-type system do the work for you.

The technology for a marine version of OnStar clearly exists. The diagnostic tools are based on telematics, a word derived from telemetry-the remote monitoring of engine temperature, oil pressure and other diagnostic gauges. Custom systems of this sort have been part of the super-yacht scene for years, with sensors monitoring components and feeding information to a central processing unit, which displays data on a computer screen at the helm and in the captain's quarters. Some custom systems aboard larger yachts let the owner, skipper or both monitor and control ship's functions via land line, cellular phone or computer. Volvo has shown the technology can be expanded to incorporate diagnostic help from a manufacturer.

The navigational software also exists, as do the ship-to-shore cellular and satellite links necessary to complete the package. Last year, Magellan started producing a satellite modem that is a complete Orbcomm VHF transceiver with an integral 10-channel GPS receiver. These satellite modems let users integrate two-way e-mail messaging and GPS positioning in a variety of equipment, and the company is miniaturizing the electronics to be embedded in pagers or wristwatches. That's a small-space way to support a big-boat style telematic network. Motorola, a pioneer in GPS products, is working on the integration of GPS and cellular communications to improve acquisition times, sensitivity and accuracy. That also has potential in the marine world.

What the automotive industry harnessed-and what's missing in the marine industry-is synergy among these advances. OnStar created an infrastructure, a big tent to welcome all these ideas, a place where the best technology morphs with the best software and the best communications and comes back to you, the customer, through the sweet voice of a helpful operator.

It's unlikely any single marine manufacturer would tackle the task of developing such a behemoth, especially considering OnStar itself says the market simply isn't there. On the other hand, if enough cruising yacht- smen speak out and demand the best of the world on the water, maybe a gutsy entrepreneur would be willing to give it a whirl.

Free-lance writers Dave Wheeler and Stephanie Seacord reported this article.