In-car subscriptions are one of those impending modern calamities that unite everyone in disgust. Nobody who isn’t a C-suite executive at at automaker or one of their suppliers wants them. It should be the job of our elected officials to shield us from the erosion of our rights as consumers (and people, but that’s a whole other story). Wouldn’t you know, my home state of New Jersey might just take a stand. Jersey!
Assembly Bill No. 4519 introduced last month by NJ Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D - Camden and Gloucester) intends to strengthen the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by making it illegal for automakers to impose subscriptions for safety and convenience features, if the components that enable them are already pre-installed in the vehicle. You know, like BMW recently trialed and others have fantasized about doing for luxuries like heated seats and high-beam assist.
There is one major caveat to Moriarty’s bill as it is written, which is that it makes provisions for features that function “with ongoing expense to the dealer, manufacturer, or any third-party service provider.” If the particular add-on is a “live” service, or something that requires active investment or development from somebody, then a subscription model would be permitted.
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This is understandable on some level, because features like semi-autonomous driving are continuously honed, and those revisions are distributed regularly via over-the-air updates in lots of cases. You could make a similar case for satellite radio, or in-car Wi-Fi. But there are sure to be gray areas, too, where automakers claim to be continually investing in services that are pretty much one-and-done jobs. Like, say, what BMW tried to pull with Apple CarPlay three years ago, and keeps getting shamed for.
Here’s the beautiful thing about CarPlay and Android Auto — they live on your phone, completely. Yes, there is a chipset inside your car that allows your smartphone to hand off iOS or Android to the infotainment stack, but all the processing is actually done on device. Back in 2019, though, BMW defended the CarPlay subscription model by arguing that Apple could conceivably update iOS in a way that causes glitches with how the automaker’s ConnectedDrive platform interfaces with CarPlay, and that it would fall on BMW software engineers to rectify those hiccups.
Of course, bugs in consumer electronics are typically addressed in software updates, which — as anyone who has ever used a phone, tablet or PC will tell you — are free and guaranteed for at least a good few years after you buy the product. And when the device in question reaches end-of-life status, you don’t suddenly have to pay a recurring fee to keep using it. If all these car companies so desperately want to be viewed as tech companies, they ought to bear the same responsibilities.
BMW’s stance was a flimsy cop out for greed. But it was also the sort of defense that might just fly, if NJ lawmakers don’t carefully check automakers for exploiting the “ongoing expense” loophole. For what it’s worth, I don’t appear to be telling the bill’s backers something they don’t already know. A summary prepared by law firm Ballard Spahr pretty much scoped this, pertinent portion bolded by yours truly:
If passed, Assembly Bill 4519, introduced on September 22, 2022, by Representative Paul Moriarty, would define a violation of the act as an unlawful practice. That would impose a civil penalty of $10,000 for a first violation and $20,000 for subsequent violations. Of significant concern for manufacturers and dealers is that, while not expressly mentioned in the bill or drafter’s statement, the private right of action and other remedies (including treble damages) available under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act would also apply. Thus, this bill has the potential to significantly impact both local auto dealer franchisees and global automakers whose vehicles are sold to New Jersey residents. Careful consideration will need to be given to what features are included in subscription options to avoid liability. Strategically ensuring that subscription features require an “ongoing expense” on the backend to maintain could also be key to compliance.
At the very least, “dumb” features like automatic high beams and seat heating and cooling should fall under the target, which is better than nothing.
If the law does pass, it’ll be interesting to see if and how automakers approach sales in the state a little differently, like how Subaru “addressed” Massachusetts’ Right to Repair and telematics legislation by simply refusing to sell Starlink there. Maybe my fellow New Jerseyan Andy Kalmowitz will have to buy his M440i Gran Coupe in New York or Pennsylvania if he wants the ability to change his sedan’s fake engine noises.
It’s also important to note that No. 4519 exclusively takes aim at subscriptions, defined as “recurring payment, including, but not limited to, a weekly, monthly, or annual payment.” One-time, post-sale charges would still be legal. In other words, there’d be nothing stopping a dealer from selling you a car with butt-warming coils, but only letting you turn them on once you’ve paid a hefty lump sum — maybe equaling the price of a multi-year subscription, special for Jersey drivers. This could play out so many ways, and the bill could probably use some fine tuning before it’s voted on. It’s a start, I suppose.