by Melodie Davis
for release November 3, 2000
In Touch With the Virtual Advisor?
I had the opportunity to ride around recently for an afternoon with the creator of the Virtual Advisor.
What on earth is a Virtual Advisor, you ask? Kind of sounds like it could be a contemporary synonym for God, don't you think?
Almost. The Virtual Advisor is part of one brand of in-car communication system called OnStar. OnStar is offered on high-end General Motors and Saab 2000 model year vehicles. It uses Global Positioning System satellite technology and wireless communication to link the driver and vehicle with the OnStar Center, where advisors are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer real-time, personalized help. OnStar invited family columnists to test-drive the system as part of their promotion, so I did.
OnStar currently has several major components, and some services cost more than others. There is emergency service, such as if your air bags are activated, the OnStar people are automatically notified and a heavenly voice comes on in your car and asks if you need assistance. In the same vein, if you experience an emergency you can press a red button and they will radio for help for you. They can track your car if it gets stolen, and send help if you have a flat tire or run out of gas.
At the most expensive level of service, you get the OnStar Virtual advisor, which can assist you if you simply need to know whether there's a Taco Bell in the next 50 miles. This is all done hands-free; a small mike picks up your voice and people at a control center use their extensive (but not exhaustive) listing to get you where you want to go. The Virtual Advisor is like a voice-Internet in that you can program it to read your e-mail to you, and get headline news, sports scores, stock quotes and weather conditions at your mother's house. It all responds to your voice commands.
But the big emphasis and plus is safety-and to be honest, that is the only way I could justify such a system for my family. The security of it does sound very tempting.
We got to actually test the system with in-car driving lessons, and my partner for one afternoon was no less than the brains behind the Virtual Advisor, Mike Peterson. He put together the nuts and bolts of the program and also serves as Virtual Advisor Program manager. When I told Mr. Peterson that the security features were the main attraction for me, he responded that that was what makes the program more than just another program, or business for him. He, too has teenage children, and so the safety of his family is an important value. They get lots of touching stories from people they've "rescued," sometimes from life threatening situations.
I often talk to myself when I drive alone, and frequently use the time to intensely talk to God. So the parallel of being in touch with God and having "a voice from above" at my fingertips is at first really striking. The Virtual Advisor knows when you're in trouble, comes to your aid if the air bags pop, and sits patiently by if you are too busy or forget to get in contact. We look to God for guidance, and while I've never yet heard God talking to me from the speakers in my car, I've never-the-less felt a gentle guiding hand (especially in hindsight). And just like my opportunity to sit down and talk to the brain behind the "brain," sometimes I would love to ask God, "What was in your mind when you created us?"
The answer to that, of course, is already given: we were created because God was lonely! God needed companionship.
Other modern technologies make us think of God as well. I remember the first time my daughter sent me an "instant message" from college. I was sitting there, working on my computer, and all of a sudden a message from her pops onto the screen. "How did she do that? How did she know I was on the computer right now?" As we wrote our messages back and forth in "real" time,I thought, this is a lot like praying, being in touch with someone across miles of space, someone you can't see but know exists and is there for you. When I first used a telephone answering machine to talk to my children in someone else's home, my youngest daughter thought my voice was coming from somewhere in the heavens.
How ironic that no matter how far society moves in terms of technology, we can use technology to remind us of the Great Virtual Advisor, a being far beyond our human constructs.
For a free booklet on prayer, write me at Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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