Home » How Ford Beat GM’s OnStar To Market And Then Squandered An Early Lead

How Ford Beat GM’s OnStar To Market And Then Squandered An Early Lead

Lincoln Rescu Ford Telematics Topshot

From Kias to Fords to Subarus, in-car telematics is virtually ubiquitous in the new car marketplace. This notion of the connected car wormed its way into the public consciousness through GM’s ubiquitous OnStar system, but did you know that GM’s cross-town rivals at Ford actually put telematics in production cars first? Here’s the story of how Ford actually beat OnStar to market with RESCU, only to completely blow its early telematics headway.

Way back in 1995, Ford announced a telematics system called Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit, or RESCU for short. The premise was simple – press a button and RESCU would rescue you from the side of the road with a built-in GPS unit transmitting your coordinates to an operator on the end of the line. Sure, it also functioned as a car phone, but RESCU’s primary purpose was to let you call a tow truck or emergency services depending on what sort of peril you were in. However, as time went on, it became very clear that first mover advantage only took Ford so far and that RESCU couldn’t be saved.

1996 Lincoln Continental Ford Rescu

Let’s start with the launch of RESCU. Companies often like to roll out new technology in high-margin vehicles, so RESCU got its first gig inside the 1996 Lincoln Continental. With a quad-cam V8, air suspension, and a branded umbrella, the ninth-generation Continental was supposed to revive Lincoln’s passenger car image. However, because it was essentially a very fancy Ford Taurus, this never actually happened. Still, for the few people who wanted to spend actual money on a Continental, RESCU was available as part of a very expensive option package.

To get it, you’d have been looking at spending $1,995 in 1996 money for a package that consisted of the RESCU system and a set of run-flat tires. I don’t know about you, but 1990s run-flat tire technology and the 50-mattress ride of a Lincoln seem at odds with each other to me. Mind you, the Chicago Tribune reports that all phone calls made through the RESCU system were free, but perks seem fairly limited otherwise.

Cadillac Gm Onstar 1997

Just a few months after Ford’s launch of RESCU, General Motors rolled out OnStar. Not only was it substantially cheaper than RESCU at $1,000 for the system, it offered far more features than Ford’s telematics system. It could give you directions, locate your vehicle if it were stolen, remotely lock or unlock your doors, automatically call emergency services in a crash severe enough for airbag deployment, and connect you to roadside assistance. It was a full feature set for the modern, web 1.0 motorist, and it would leave Ford playing catch-up.

By 1999, Ford had incorporated trip routing assistance into RESCU, but GM had started its great quest to incorporate OnStar into everything. You could get it in a Chevrolet Suburban SUV, a Buick LeSabre sedan, a Cadillac Eldorado coupe, the list goes on. General Motors was smart by rolling out OnStar as a dealer-installed accessory on many models, whereas Ford kept things factory-installed and fumbled the bag. The new for 1999 Windstar would’ve been a great product to offer RESCU on, but telematics aren’t mentioned in the brochure.

1999 Suburban Onstar

In 2000, it felt like things were about to turn a corner. Ford had partnered with Qualcomm on a joint venture wireless vehicle data service called Wingcast. The promise was huge: CNN reported that Wingcast “would bring voice activated Internet access to all new Ford vehicles within two-to-three years.” Two years later, the whole arrangement had gone bust right as OnStar was hitting its stride.

Lincoln Ls Ford Rescu Vehicle Communication System

By that point, Ford had dropped the RESCU moniker. In 2001, the Lincoln Continental options list featured a change from RESCU to “integrated voice-activated portable/convertible cellular phone.” While this system still tapped into an integrated GPS module, it was more interested in being a traditional car phone than it was in being a telematics system. The new name of Vehicle Communication System came in for 2002 which leaned more heavily on telematics services like finding points-of-interest, but it wouldn’t last long. By 2005, the Vehicle Communication System was gone without a trace.

In the end, RESCU apparently died from Ford’s to failure to implement and innovate. As far as I can work out through a litany of brochures, telematics never made it to Ford’s flagship Excursion SUV, which is absurd because a dealer-installed Nintendo 64 did. Whether called RESCU, the telematics system formerly known as RESCU, or the Vehicle Communication System, it remained a pricey posh-brand-only system tied into a phone. In addition, although Ford added navigation, points-of-interest, and eventually the ability to automatically call 911 in the event of airbag deployment, Ford failed to keep pace with the vast array of services offered by OnStar.

Ford Sync

Mind you, it wasn’t like the failure of RESCU wasn’t a learning experience for Ford. In 2007, Ford took another crack at mobile services. You might know it as Sync. It definitely took a few years, but eventually every Ford was able to dial 911 in the case of an emergency using the driver’s cell phone. It’s funny how things come around like that.

(Photo credits: Lincoln, Cadillac, GM, Chevrolet, Ford)

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18 Responses

  1. I’m pretty sure GM got in the game because they had a significant investment in Hughes so OnStar was a supposedly easy extension of DISH and/or other Hughes technologies. It probably didn’t take a whole lot of new inventing, just commercializing. I’m no GM booster, but I have to give them credit, it was a (rare) smart move on their part.

  2. Was OnStar always the safety-focused “we’ll automatically send some EMTs to help drag you out of your car when you crash” service that it is today? I swear I remember a commercial from when I was a kid that featured a guy cruising around town poking the OnStar button and using it to get dinner reservations, event tickets, etc.

    Is that a real thing, or did I just get hit with one of those Mandela Effect instances of completely misremembering something?

    1. That feels like a Buick commercial, I think I remember the same. It was definitely pitched as something like a more advanced roadside assistance plus concierge.

      I want to say the safety angle really took off ~10 years later when there were more post-crash call recordings and footage of recovered stolen vehicles that they could use in the advertising. Makes sense since the concierge and phone features were less impressive once everyone got a cell phone and had internet at work and home, but come to think of it the “we’ll call the authorities if your airbags deploy!!” aspect in the early days of OnStar could’ve spooked a buyer that very likely might have been coming out of a car with no airbags at all.

    2. That seems about right. I remember when I had OnStar, they tried to convince me to get a $30 package with 30 minutes of cell phone time along with some sort of concierge service.

  3. Is this article a way to RESCU Mercury Monday with a showroom-shared product?

    Also re: the Continental “because it was essentially a very fancy Ford Taurus…” to me they always seemed pretty substantially differentiated, more so than say, a Lexus ES to a Camry. Even for the average consumer that knows Lincoln is a Ford product I think most would be hard-pressed to identify it had any Taurus parts underneath. Taurus was still popular when the Continental debuted too so that probably didn’t count against it. To me the Conti was always in the shadow of the Seville among its domestic competition, and most buyers that wandered into a Lincoln-Mercury showroom went for a Town Car for the same price or a Grand Marquis for less.

    1. It was also the only use of the 4.6 in FWD configuration. Ford hamstrung its entire V8 architecture for effectively a single car, to this day even the 5.0 is paying the price of the FWD packaging constraints. The conti deserves some historic suspect.

  4. I really like OnStar, when my Chevy Volt had issues, I pressed the blue button, told them to run a diagnostic report and they sent it to me via email. Searching online I was able to find the issue, printed out the report and told the dealership this is the issue with the car (BECM went bad). I can remote start my car from my Apple Watch, get notifications when the battery is fully charged, if the alarm goes off. I even added a checkpoint at the dealership in case they go for a joy ride, I will get a notification when the car leaves the lot.

    Not even my Polestar can do all of that. And I only pay $8 per month 🙂

  5. OnStar wasn’t just for GM. They licensed it out for awhile to other automakers (I think Japanese, not sure which). And later, you could buy a rear-view mirror with OnStar in it for any vehicle. I had one installed at Best Buy in my old Grand Prix that had analog OnStar when the analog cell system was decommissioned. Now you can get OnStar for any car via a phone app.

    1. Acura offered it, one of the things that came about at the same time GM and Honda were doing engine trades; Subaru also offered it in some upper Outbacks, when GM had a stake in the parent company and Saabarus were under development. Isuzu did too but I don’t think any non-GM-built ones, just like the Envoy and Colorado variants.

      Audi and Volkswagen did too for a bit, but not sure what they got out of it in return.

      1. And then they went the final step and made it something you could install in a universal rearview-mirror. I think that was probably early 2010s, but my memory is hazy on it.

        It was a brilliant idea as the car really didn’t matter so long as you could wire the box and mirror to the battery. At the time, I had a sBox SVT and was trying to find the college couch money to get it as I was often driving long distances in a less that reliable car and didn’t want to disappear from the face of the earth.

  6. More of these OEM stories please 🙂

    I once had a crash in an OnStar equipped vehicle, with airbag deployment, and it would not connect. I eventually crawled out the passenger side and was able to call 911 with my cellphone.

  7. “Way back in 1995, Ford announced a telematics system called Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit, or RESCU for short.”

    For our senior project for business college we had to come up with a product and a plan for how we would bring it to market. Mine was a system I called Emergency Alert, which would combine GPS with cellular phone tech and tie into the vehicle’s airbag system to notify local authorities when your vehicle had been in a bad accident.

    This was in 1992.

    I keep expecting to see my professor’s name on the engineering teams that worked on these early telematics systems.

    Anyway I got an A on the project, so I’ll always have that.

    1. Hey, I had a Zune and it was a perfectly cromulent MP3 player. I’m still daily using an ancient 160GB iPod classic I got over a decade ago. I don’t like burning cell phone battery to play music.

        1. I maintain that the Zune HD had the best graphical interface for dealing with a music library of any hand-held device I’ve ever used. I still use my Zune HD regularly, despite the software being abandoned by Microsoft. The battery life can’t be beat, even in its advanced age.

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