HELP!; ON-BOARD NAVIGATIONAL SYSTEMS LET THE LOST BECOME FOUND.
North of Barstow the storm broke and an almost full moon sketched a ``Close Encounters'' kind of sky.
It seemed like the perfect setting to test drive the high-tech communications system called OnStar, installed in an Oldsmobile Auroa.
Keeping my eyes on the road, I punched a single button on the console-mounted phone. After a two second pause, Garth Brooks quit singing about fruity cocktails - how weird is that anyway - and the sound of a ringing cell phone flowed through the Bose speakers.
Then a friendly, polite voice filled the car.
``OnStar Center, can I help you?''
``You sure can,'' I replied. ``There's been a nasty storm out here on the desert and we will be late getting to the Rio. Can you let them know.''
A few minutes later the operator called back to say that our tardiness had been noted and that a room would be waiting for us.
And by the way, the operator wondered, did we need any dinner or show reservations made, a traffic report or the oil checked?
OnStar is one General Motors Corp. option that won't leave you feeling lonely out on the highway.
While your bank account will be lightened from the average $1,300 installation charge, $22.50 monthly fee and cell phone bill, you will always know just where the heck you are.
The OnStar option, available on a total of 24 models in the Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac-GMC, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet lines, uses Global Positioning Satellite technology and other state-of-the art gizmos to track a vehicle's exact location and even run a mechanical diagnosis of the car.
If trouble surfaces, operators based in Troy, Mich., can tell whether the car should be driven to a garage or if a tow is necessary. And they can summon help.
The phones uses analog technology, so the reception is not as clear as that of digital networks, and users can experience signal loss and cross talk. But it isvoice-activated, so you can pay attention to the driving.
Cheryl Roth, spokeswoman for OnStar Communications, said that about 26,000 units are now in use. And the system may become more affordable in 1999 models.
A comparison of six of the more popular navigation systems.
Photo: (1--Color) LEXUS
(3--Color) OLDSMOBILE GUIDESTAR
(5--Color) GM ONSTAR