South Bay ravine crash illustrates power, limitations of OnStar
By Hamed Aleaziz
After a 28-year-old Campbell woman crashed her Chevrolet Cruze about 500 feet down a mountain this week, she was in bad shape. But the car sprang into action.
Its onboard computer, General Motors’ OnStar system, sent detailed information to a company specialist: The sedan not only had wrecked, but also had rolled over. The specialist called police in Campbell, letting them know they needed to respond to an emergency.
But there was a big problem: The location of the crash, where the woman had been ejected and lay facedown in a ravine, was off by 15 miles.
General Motors officials said they were looking into what happened with the GPS-based system, but declined to be interviewed about the situation, which illustrated the power of location-based technologies and how interwoven they have become in people’s lives. The California Highway Patrol is also investigating the crash.
The woman in the Chevrolet, Melissa Vasquez — who crashed just after 2 p.m. Monday and was finally found at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday on Mount Hamilton east of San Jose, thanks to yet another location-based technology linked to her iPhone — was recovering Wednesday at a hospital. She is expected to survive.
“We are saddened by this incident involving one of our subscribers,” General Motors said in a statement. “Our subscribers’ safety and security is OnStar’s utmost concern. We are currently conducting a complete investigation, including information we have received from our call centers, our cellular network provider, our engineering team and the local authorities to better understand what occurred.”
OnStar has been around for nearly two decades, and may be best known for ads in which motorists crash and then hear a voice asking them if they’re OK. It has more than 6 million subscribers, the company said, with specialists responding to more than 300,000 crash scenes.
OnStar can also help when a car is stolen. Directions and hand-free calling are other selling points.
Campbell police Capt. Gary Berg said his department generally gets two or three accident calls a month from OnStar, with a specialist providing a location. Usually, Berg said, the OnStar adviser tells the police dispatcher that he or she is currently speaking with the driver, and describes injuries or relays other pertinent information.
“When the system works, it is extremely useful in locating people who are involved in accidents or recovering stolen vehicles,” Berg said.
But auto safety experts said the incident this week raised questions. Louis Lombardo, who founded an advocacy group, Care for Crash Victims, after decades working for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the government should investigate what happened.
“The public and government really need to dig into this. Why did it send out the wrong information? What is the gap between what happened there and the enormous lifesaving capabilities that this technology has?” he said.
Clarence Ditlow, who directs the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., said the government should regulate safety features like OnStar.
If the OnStar system failed in the Campbell case, it did succeed in one way: It first alerted authorities that there had been a crash, at about 2:10 p.m. Monday.
That’s when Campbell officers headed to the presumed location — near White Oaks Road and Shelley Avenue in Campbell, Berg said. That was just a couple of blocks from Vasquez’s home.
Officers spent two hours searching the area, Berg said. Police had OnStar honk the car horn remotely, to no avail. A second strategy — having officers run sirens in different locations to see if they could be heard over the OnStar system — also failed.
A knock on Vasquez’s door got no response. And the car wasn’t there.
Officers then contacted Vasquez’s cellular company, which provided a location of her phone within a 7-mile radius of downtown San Jose, Berg said. Campbell police officers broadcast the vehicle’s description to all agencies in the county, he said.
Then, just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, Campbell police officers received a missing person’s report from Vasquez’s stepmother, with whom she lives, officials said. She said she hadn’t heard from her.
Officer Dave Cameron met with the stepmother and asked if Vasquez had Find My iPhone, an app that can locate a iPhone using cell signals. The stepmother responded that Vasquez owned an iPad — but she didn’t know where it was.
So Cameron called the cell company, which could tell the iPad was in the Campbell home. Soon, the stepmother found the tablet computer — but it was locked.
“So I made an educated guess, based on a series of common numbers people use for passwords,” said Cameron, who acknowledged that he’s known within the department as “kind of a tech geek.” Officials said Cameron made the right guess within four tries.
The Find My iPhone app was also locked. But the same password opened it up. Cameron activated the “lost phone” feature and saw a map of the location of Vasquez’s iPhone: 14555 Mount Hamilton Road.
“It gave a very small search area,” Cameron said. He noticed that Vasquez’s cell phone only had 12 percent battery life left.
“You think about it. If we didn’t have that specific location, I would hate to think what the outcome would be without him logging into that account,” Berg said.
Officers from San Jose and deputies from Santa Clara County responded to the area soon after receiving the information from Campbell police.
Less than 20 minutes later, around 5:30 a.m., officers located Vasquez on Mount Hamilton. The car was on its roof, said CHP Officer Ross Lee. Vasquez was outside the car, facedown but conscious.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter responded and took Vasquez to Regional Medical Center of San Jose with major injuries, including to her abdomen and legs.
Cameron said he was heartened that technology helped save Vasquez.
“Sixteen years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “It would have been phone calls and guesses and maps.”