I’m pretty sure that, for most of us, this present isn’t really the future we’d hoped for. Sure, we have amazing pocket computers and have avoided putting pizzas in pill form, but we’re in a pandemic and an era of unrest and idiocy. BMW sure as hell isn’t making things better with its announcement of its version 7.0 of its cars’ operating system, an update that will allow for subscription-based models for features like adaptive cruise and heated seats. This is a terrible path to go down for the entire automotive industry, and we, as gearheads and consumers need to send a clear message to BMW.
How do we do that? Easy. If BMW implements this basic-features-as-subscriptions model, no one should buy a new BMW ever again. Or, at least until they back off from the worst form of this miserable idea.
I get that this may sound harsh and over-the-top, but I think this is an important message to send. This sort of thing will spread throughout the industry unless the consumers really make a stand.
I should mention right up front here that I had a long conversation with BMW about all of this, and the one big take-away is that they have not come to a decision on whether they will actually do subscription models for features, or if so, to what extent.
They also made it clear that any changes that may happen in this direction would be gradual and incremental if they happen.
That’s certainly good news, and it’s also an opportunity for us to avoid this happening at all by freaking out about it.
Let’s discuss why paying monthly for all the goodies and crap you would reasonably expect from a car in BMW’s class is so undesirable.
We’ve already seen this bullshit with Tesla, always on the bleeding edge of new bullshit, and how they’ve been trying to charge customers twice (or more) to keep the same features a car was purchased with new functioning once that car has been sold to a new owner.
Tesla hasn’t exactly managed to really pull it off seamlessly because there’s not yet one corporate mandate from the top clearly stating that features like Autopilot are subscription-based. It feels like they’ve just been opportunistically feeling the idea out.
BMW, though, seems to be considering going all in, at least based on how it’s presented in their press release. First, it mentions it in a bulleted list:
Since 2018, the Remote Software Upgrade has enabled BMW drivers to keep their vehicle up to date with the latest software, just like with a smartphone. The new functions can be downloaded and installed over-the-air. This is particularly convenient and extremely fast: even for extensive upgrades, hardly more than 20 minutes of pure installation time is required.
With Remote Software Upgrade, BMW also offers its customers maximum flexibility and security when booking optional extras at a later date – regardless of whether the vehicle is new or used.
...and they go into more detail later:
BMW already offers its customers digital services and additional vehicle functions in the form of digital after-sales, some of which are deeply embedded in the vehicle’s software. Currently available examples of these services are the High Beam Assistant, Active Cruise Control (ACC) driver assistance system with Stop & Go function, BMW Driver Recorder, BMW IconicSounds Sport, and Adaptive M Suspension (the offer may vary in individual markets). In the near future, additional functions will be added that can access the vehicle’s existing hardware and software, such as certain comfort functions or driver assistance systems.
In addition, BMW will offer an even greater degree of flexibility in terms of booking periods in the future. Customers will benefit in advance from the opportunity to try out the products for a trial period of one month, after which they can book the respective service for one or three years.
With the option of subsequently booking additional vehicle functions via the ConnectedDrive Store, BMW is strengthening selection and personalisation for customers, offering them maximum flexibility. BMW provides the hardware and software in the vehicle ex factory for the implementation so that it can be adapted later on as required and in accordance with customer preferences. If, for example, vehicle functions were not yet requested at the time of purchase, they can be added later. A second owner thus can configure the used vehicle according to their own wishes.
This is from BMW’s own press release, so it’s being couched in the most positive terms and contexts possible, that it’s giving drivers freedom to upgrade their car’s feature set remotely, on the fly, whenever they feel like it. They can try features out for a month, for free!
But let’s be clear here: this absolutely, unequivocally, is bullshit.
What this really means is that very expensive brand new BMW you just bought will require you to pay a monthly subscription fee for features that you would expect to be part of the car, like adaptive cruise control and heated seats or whatever, and this is a model that only benefits BMW.
Why would any rational person want this?
If you, like many of BMW’s target buyers, are the sort that hates to look at a blanking panel on a dashboard knowing that means there’s a feature left untaken, then this should be a thousand times worse because you’re literally expending fuel and horsepower to haul around equipment in your own car you’re not allowed to use.
Also, who the fuck wants to keep up with the extra hassle of remembering if you bothered to subscribe to your, say, heated steering wheel? And if you just say, well, I’ll just automatically pay it every month, then why wouldn’t you just own the feature that came installed on your car?
This is nothing less than erosion of ownership of your own car from the company that built it. If you have to subscribe to the fundamental features of your car every month, then you do not really own that car that you’re paying off.
If you’re leasing, as, BMW’s rep reminded me, over 90 percent of premium car drivers in America do, it may make a bit more sense, though it still introduces a lot of needless complexity that really doesn’t benefit the consumer much at all.
It does, however, benefit BMW itself, as having features that can be disabled remotely simplifies production immensely, and that saves them money, especially for leased cars, where the same car can go from lessee to lessee and change how it’s configured considerably.
There are some subscription-model ideas around that may make sense for this, but those are more like monthly renting of an entire car, and that’s different. Having to subscribe to features on a car you’re buying is never going to be okay.
There’s also the ownership issue when it comes to customization. If it’s your car, it’s paid off, and you want to, say upgrade the head unit or make other changes, there’s no way there won’t be conflicts with the inevitable digital rights management (DRM) of the features on your car.
Doing any sort of your own work or changing the electronics of your car will invariably end up with your subscriptions interrupted, because BMW will now need to be aware of people who will attempt to hack their cars to get access to the features they (understandably) feel they should have, so security measures will be in place.
And, of course, this will be absolutely miserable for the used car market. Who the hell would buy a used BMW if you had no way of knowing what features may actually still be active, or that you have to pay monthly fees to use?
Many people buy used cars just to avoid the hassle of monthly payments, period, so why would they want to deal with that?
And, for all of this, it’s not like BMW is announcing that its cars with subscription-based features will be sold as a basic platform with a huge price cut, and features can be added at will, so that people of a wider income spectrum can get into a BMW.
Fuck no. BMWs will be just as expensive and exclusive as ever, only now they’ll suck much, much more, because they’ll be locked into this greedy customer/driver-hostile model that absolutely nobody is asking for.
BMW has tried this before, remember, with Apple CarPlay as a subscription service. Remember how that turned out? BMW had to stop doing that because it proved to be so unpopular, and that’s the one thing that’s giving me a bit of hope right now, because even if BMW does not seem to have learned its lesson, maybe we can teach it to them again.
The features-for-subscription model must not be allowed to become standard across the industry. It’s poison. It only benefits the companies raking in billions of dollars, it adds hassle and unneeded complication to people’s lives, it costs consumers more money, needlessly, it severely impairs the ability to customize your own car, it destroys the resale value of your car and the desirability of used cars, it erodes private ownership of your own car—fuck this shit.
Really, it’s better to think of it as not subscribing to features, but paying a ransom to get access to features already on the car—features that you’d likely expect from almost any car in the class, or, really, even classes below BMW, as most well-equipped Kias likely have dynamic cruise and lane-keeping and heated seats and all that.
There’s only one solution that makes any sense here: if BMW goes ahead and implements this system, nobody should buy a new BMW. Or even lease.
Seriously. If this happens, don’t buy them. Buy a used one that also has the advantage of not looking like a hideously ugly robot naked mole rat. Come on, is this something you really need to drive?
No, it isn’t, especially if you’re paying monthly for your a/c or whatever.
Tell your non-gearhead friends not to buy BMWs if this happens. There are so many other options out there, companies that have not yet fallen into this subscription-feature model trap. If status is important, point them to a Mercedes-Benz or an Audi, or if they’re less pretentious, maybe a Kia Stinger.
I don’t care—anything without this poison model of selling cars will be better because a message has to be sent.
Again, I should mention that I spoke with a BMW PR person, and he assured me that BMW understands these concerns and is not planning on doing anything drastic. I’m certainly willing to give him and BMW the benefit of the doubt, but as long as this idea is a possibility, I think it’s worth making these points and reminding BMW this is not a path I—and I think many others—want to see cars go down.
BMW also gave me its “official” statement:
Currently, in the U.S. there is a small pilot program offering a feature called Drive Recorder. (Here’s some info on that feature specifically.) It’s available as a free one-month trial, for one year, for three years, or for lifetime. The potential for offering other digital services and options in the U.S. market is under consideration, but has not been defined at this time.
Look, I like BMWs. I’ve enjoyed driving many of them. But there’s no way in hell I’d recommend one to anyone if it was saddled with this level of automotive DRM horseshit.
I guess maybe they could do a by-the-use model for turn signals, though. That may save BMW owners some money.