Verizon unveils a car plug-in module providing OnStar-like services

Verizon unveiled its own take on the aftermarket connected car module Tuesday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Called Verizon Vehicle, the technology is similar to other plug-in dashboard gadgets like Automatic, Mojio and Zubie, but Verizon isn’t aiming at the early tech adopter set. Instead, Verizon Vehicle clearly targets the roadside assistance and telematics market pioneered by GM’s OnStar.

[company]Verizon[/company] Vehicle has two components: a module that plugs into the on-board diagnostic port of any vehicle made in the last 18 years, and a Bluetooth microphone and speaker that clips to your car’s visor. The module tracks your location via GPS and maintains a constant connection to Verizon’s cellular network. The visor device connects to the plug-in module wireless and allows you to dial up and talk to a Verizon Vehicle operator or mechanic with a touch of a button.

The Verizon Vehicle module plugs into the OBD-II port of your car and communicates with a visor speaker and mic

The Verizon Vehicle module plugs into the OBD-II port of your car and communicates with a visor speaker and mic

The services offered are right out of OnStar’s playbook: vehicle location, accident alerts and a panic button for emergencies that puts the driver in contact with a Verizon Vehicle dispatcher. There’s also a mechanics hotline that connects you to a live professional grease monkey to help diagnose any problems with your vehicle.

Like other plug-in modules, Verizon Vehicle also taps into the car’s control access network, which gives it access to all kinds of information in the automobile’s internal computer. Through a smartphone app or through text or email alerts, Verizon Vehicle will be able to detail the exact problem your car is experiencing when that check engine light starts flashing. The app and alert system will also help with preventative maintenance, telling you when the car’s tires need to be rotated or when you’re due for an oil change.

Verizon will start selling the service for a monthly subscription fee in the second quarter, targeting an April 10 shipping date. On a site set up for pre-orders, Verizon said it would offer the hardware free of charge with a two year contract and a subscription fee of $15 a month for a single car. For every additional vehicle that uses the service, the charge is $13 a month. The service won’t necessarily be linked to a Verizon phone plan, either, so you can use Verizon Vehicle if you’re on another carrier.

The cars AT&T doesn’t connect

According to Verizon president of telematics Erik Goldman, the product could potentially bring connectivity to 200 million cars of 9,337 different makes and models that currently have no embedded communication link. The exceptions are the newer generations of cars that come with cellular radios under the hood. Ironically, most of those cars are the many generations of OnStar vehicles that Verizon already powers.

Last year, Verizon lost that coveted OnStar deal when [company]GM[/company] decided to go with AT&T connectivity for its next generation of 4G cars, which started rolling off the lots last summer. Still, GM hasn’t exactly washed its hands of Verizon. There are still millions of Chevys, Buicks and Cadillacs — not to mention GM’s discontinued brands — on the road that are still getting their OnStar links from Verizon.

With GM looking to [company]AT&T[/company] for its future connectivity, perhaps Verizon felt now was the time to launch a competing service. AT&T is winning the battle for connecting cars to 4G services, racking up automaker contract after contract. Verizon clearly sees an opportunity in those millions of cars that aren’t already connected.

I’m curious to see what Verizon plans to do with the service. Right now Verizon Vehicle seems limited to emulating OnStar’s core roadside assistance and diagnostic services, but startups like Automatic have taught us you can do a lot more once you get a wireless connection in the car feeding a stream of data into the cloud.

Verizon could start linking the car to the connected home and integrating the vehicle into location-based apps that could notify your family when you’re almost home or alert you when you’re near a store on your errands list. Like MetroMile and Zubie, it could even partner with insurers to offer lower premiums based on your driving behavior. And depending on whether Verizon plans to include 4G in its module, it could turn the car into a mobile broadband hotspot.

This post was updated at 11 AM PT with more details and analysis, and again at 2:10 PM to update pricing info on the service.