Audi's virtual cockpit is cool -- but GM's OnStar is still better

OnstarPush the blue button.

Audi has been rolling out a technology it calls “virtual cockpit.” It enables the driver to reconfigure the main instrument panel, which is an all-digital screen, to display information in a variety of ways.

After spending time with the tech in a few Audi vehicles, I’ve found that I like to make the navigation system, which uses Google Maps, take over.

Combined with a heads-up display that can show turn-by-turn direction, this is the best way to use the virtual cockpit to get your Audi from point A to point B.

But how does virtual cockpit stack up again my personal favourite nav system, General Motor’s OnStar?

OnStar has been around for decades. It’s a suite of communications, connectivity, emergency assistance, and infotainment-integration features that’s activated, most of the time, by pressing a small blue button on the rear-view mirror of GM vehicles.

Early on, OnStar seemed to struggle to get traction. It could call for help in an accident and get your doors unlocked remotely if you locked your keys in the car, but it’s become more appealing in the past five years, as connectivity in vehicles has become more important and customers have gotten more demanding when it comes to infotainment and navigation.

Audi R8 35Hollis JohnsonAudi’s virtual cockpit.

Many cars now have voice-activation systems, and some allow people to use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to retain smartphone access while driving. For Apple CarPlay, this means that Siri can become your excellent in-car voice system.

But otherwise, voice systems are a mixed bag. And the manual input interfaces for navigation setups continues to be pretty cumbersome. On a recently Audi I checked out, to get virtual cockpit working in all its coolness, I had to fiddle with a rotating controller and “type” in addresses.

OnStar, on the other hand, is a two-button deal. Push the button. A human operator comes on the line. You tell that person where you want to go. They send the directions to your vehicle. And then you push a button on GM’s touchscreen infotainment screen to get going. One-two-done.

Cadillac CTS-VMatthew DeBord/Business InsiderOnStar on a Cadillac CTS-V.

It’s old-school. But it’s simple. And in my experience, it’s always gotten me where I wanted to go.

Best off all, it isn’t distracting. You can interact with OnStar while you’re driving; it’s no more distracting than talking on a hands-free phone system.

Technologies such as virtual cockpit can be very distracting. All that coolness right in front of you will do that.

It’s ironic that I think OnStar, which has been around for 20 years, is still the best in the business. It shouldn’t be. Even though massive advancements in infotainment have been made since OnStar was started in 1995, it continues to outshine the competition.

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