DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co. claims its soon-to-be-launched 911 Assist system rivals General Motors Corp.’s OnStar service for speed and performance.

And it’s free, adds the head of Ford’s recently established autonomous division.

Available as early as December as a dealer-installed software upgrade to Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles equipped with the auto maker’s Sync multimedia system, 911 Assist places direct calls to emergency service providers in the event of a severe collision. OnStar does not, says Doug VanDagens.

“Our calls come in on an emergency line and go straight to the top of the queue, while OnStar calls go through an operator who speaks to a 911 operator,” VanDagens says during a media event here to introduce the system.

Mobility is another advantage 911 Assist has over OnStar, as it works via a driver’s cell phone, while OnStar relies on an imbedded communication device.

“When you’re in the middle of a crash, you want to get out of (your car), but you want to still maintain that call,” VanDagens says. “Sync allows you to take your cell phone, walk out of the car and continue on the same call to emergency-service providers.”

Meanwhile, OnStar access requires a paid subscription.

“911 Assist is free, whereas an OnStar charges between $18-$28 per month,” VanDagens adds.

The 911 Assist system automatically is activated when airbags are deployed in a collision. If the airbags don’t deploy, a rear-mounted inertia monitor activates the system if it detects a severe impact.

Fender-benders will not set off 911 Assist, VanDagens says, adding drivers who do not wish to see emergency personnel have 10 seconds to deactivate the system.

Tony DiSalle, vice president of sales and marketing for OnStar, argues GM’s system is more reliable. “Would you trust your cell phone in an accident?” he asks.

“Where do you think a cell phone would reside in an accident,” DiSalle adds, citing the possibility that a cell phone could be thrown about during a collision, making it impossible to carry on a conversation outside the vehicle.

OnStar, which was launched in 1996, currently boasts more than 5.5 million subscribers and has responded to nearly 100,000 crashes. “And our perspective is the only way to do this,” DiSalle maintains.

As with 911 Assist, OnStar also uses cellular signals to connect to emergency responders. However, the cellular antenna is placed on top of the vehicle, making it more likely to secure a connection than Ford’s system, DiSalle says.

DiSalle also defends OnStar’s subscription fees, saying “you get what you pay for.”

In developing 911 Assist, Ford collaborated with the National Emergency Number Assn. and the Assn. of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Today, Assist 911 notifies emergency operators a collision has occurred involving a Ford, Lincoln or Mercury vehicle. The phone number of the driver is provided, and vehicles can be located using emergency responders by triangulating the location of the cell phone or through a global positioning system, which will be made standard in all Ford vehicles beginning in the '09 model year, VanDagens says.

Eventually, operators will be trained to determine how much damage has occurred, providing yet another valuable tool to emergency responders, VanDagens says.

Launching in conjunction with 911 Assist is Ford’s Vehicle Health Report (VHR) system, which also is Sync-based.

Consumers can access a dedicated website to establish their preferences for vehicle health reports. The reports are generated from information provided by the vehicle’s major control modules, after which data is sent to Ford through the user’s cell phone.

The entire process is free of charge, takes just a few minutes and includes routine checks of more than two dozen vehicle systems, says Tom Hodges, Sync and digital marketing manager.

“It monitors any system that has self-diagnostic capability,” Hodges says, adding a warning light on VHR will prompt a detailed readout of what caused the alert, eliminating a trip to the dealership for problems such as an improperly secured gas cap.

“It will be very detail-oriented,” he says. “The specific instructions given to the customer will be specific to the exact scenario that Sync picked up from the vehicle.”

If a critical issue is detected by the system, a text message will be sent to the driver’s cell phone, VanDagens says. “Immediately, you would know your engine is in bad shape and you shouldn’t drive it anymore,” he says.

VHR and 911 Assist will be available on 12 Sync-equipped Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles this year and eight more models will go online in 2009.

VanDagens hints that more Sync-based systems are on their way next year as well, although he declines to elaborate. “Beginning next year, we’ll have a whole series of incremental features to announce,” he says, hinting they will be in collaboration with the “giants of the Internet.”

bpope@wardsauto.com