The all-new '04 Chevrolet Malibu, which is beginning to arrive at dealerships, features a new safety system offered by General Motors Corp.'s in-vehicle OnStar telematics system.

An advanced automatic crash notification (AACN) system is standard in the basic OnStar “Safe and Sound” package, but is an optional item overall in the new model. AACN automatically calls an OnStar control center if the Malibu is involved in a crash, regardless of whether the airbags deploy. Accident notification also will take place if the airbags deploy.

The advanced system detects moderate to severe crashes by monitoring data from a network of sensors embedded throughout the vehicle. Impact force is one of the most important bits of data that is used to trigger crash notification to OnStar. The direction of impact also is transmitted. When an OnStar advisor receives that information, an emergency voice/data connection is established immediately with the vehicle.

An OnStar advisor can locate the car instantly and the call can be transferred to the nearest 911 dispatcher. The precise location of the accident then is relayed to the local emergency medical response unit.

OnStar says that future AACN systems may have the capability of detecting the number of occupants in a vehicle, and whether they are wearing seatbelts. In addition, OnStar is attempting to enable the system to detect the severity of injuries, so paramedics can be prepared to provide adequate treatment. OnStar now receives about 500 airbag deployment notifications per month. AACN undoubtedly will add to the accident notifications.

The enhanced system is expected to be especially helpful in rural areas, where 20% of crashes but 60% of accident fatalities occur. Often there are no passing vehicles or other witnesses to such accidents. Also, few hospitals in remote areas have the trauma-trained medical personnel needed to treat the kind of injuries caused in severe crashes.

OnStar is the nation's largest provider of vehicle telematics services. It expects to roll out 400,000 AACN systems in '04 GM models. In addition to the Malibu, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Envoy XUT, Oldsmobile Bravada and Buick Rainier will offer OnStar with AACN. The feature will be added to other GM models in subsequent years.

OnStar passed a big test in the recent Northeast blackout. It was able to maintain service to most subscribers even though its control center received an increased volume of calls from drivers affected by the blackout. Subscribers asked call-center advisors to go beyond normal service offerings. Callers requested advisors to notify family members and contact stores that might still have generators for sale.

OnStar has back-up generators at its Southeast Michigan call center that helped keep the operation functioning. An OnStar spokeswoman says that the Aug. 14-15 blackout period were heavy call days, rivaling the volume of weekend days, which usually are the busiest. “The uniqueness of the event stretched our organization, but we did what we could to assist in this time of need,” the spokeswoman says.