The Future of Cars as Computers

James Vincent, the Verge:

BMW is now selling subscriptions for heated seats in a number of countries — the latest example of the company’s adoption of microtransactions for high-end car features.

A monthly subscription to heat your BMW’s front seats costs roughly $18, with options to subscribe for a year ($180), three years ($300), or pay for “unlimited” access for $415.

For comparison, BMW UK charges £600, or about $710 USD, to equip a 1-Series with heated seats as part of a larger package of comfort options.

Now that seemingly everything is a connected device, anything can be turned into a subscription. This is one bizarre example. Maybe an owner in a usually warm climate wakes up one frosty winter morning and, so, is happy subscribing to heated seats for a month or two, thereby saving money by not paying the flat rate price BMW charges to add the equipment to the car. Except heated seats have to be equipped from the factory. The hardware must be there; it is gated solely by software.

Joseph Cox and Aaron Gordon, Vice:

Historically, cars come with various features offered as part of packages, or “trims,” which the buyer decides when they purchase the car. Originally, these were nearly all physical or hardware upgrades like leather seats, more horsepower, or a sunroof. But, increasingly, they are software-enabled features like automatic headlights and wiper activation and driver assist features like adaptive cruise control. The creation of software-locked features means all versions of a car can have the feature, but only if the customer pays to unlock them. Some coders are helping customers do this off-the-books.

If BMW is going to entrust its software to be the gatekeeper deciding whether installed hardware can be used, I say “good luck”. Do you think owners who elect to not subscribe to heated seats are not actually paying for them? They must be built into the bill of materials. Behaviours like BMW’s are normalizing the ability for companies to skim revenue off the top for no reason other than because they can.

This is what we can expect going forward in contexts we had never previously imagined, enabled partly by laws like the DMCA’s anti-circumvention rules. Businesses love predictable monthly recurring revenue streams. Do you believe we are already being squeezed for every dollar we can give? Of course not; BMW’s strategy proves there is plenty more room for nickel-and-diming, customer experience be damned.