BMW’s subscriptions for seat warmers are a bum deal for car owners
The famous car maker has learned the wrong lessons from mobile
Imagine, for a moment, the future of cars. Science fiction trained us to think of vehicles soaring through the air, driving themselves while we get on with more important things, like faffing about on phones. BMW’s vision is decidedly more dystopian, centring on the worst bit about phones: hideous business models apps have popularised.
As reported by The Verge, BMW recently – and quietly – started selling subscriptions to car ‘services’. Such things aren’t new – and can be justified. You might gripe about paying for weather or navigational data, but those things incur costs – and it’s reasonable they’re passed on. But it’s hard to argue the same about warming your bum.
Yet that’s BMW’s latest wheeze: selling subscriptions for heated seats. At the time of writing, you pay £15 per month, £150 per year, £250 across three years, or £350 for an ‘unlimited’ time. The car maker also offers a similar – if cheaper – subscription for heating your steering wheel, and a one-off £99 payment that “transfers your vehicle’s unmistakable, sporty BMW sound directly into the vehicle interior”. That’s a hundred quid. For car noises.
All this is a world away from traditional car updates. Once, you decided what extras you wanted and paid for them upfront. Now, we could be heading for a world where cars increasingly have various add-on components installed by default and rolled into the purchase price – but block you from using them by way of software.
Proponents of this approach argue buyers benefit through saving money if they only occasionally use heated seats. However, that makes the naive assumption BMW installs them and takes the hit itself if owners don’t subscribe. Unlikely. It’s really the car maker that stands to benefit. It will be able to simplify production, lower operating costs, and make ongoing additional profits from components already installed and paid for.
It’s a user-hostile, wasteful stance from a major brand. And if enterprising car owners reckon they can get around it, they should think again. As author and activist Cory Doctorow says, circumventing BMW’s software could leave tool creators in violation of law, and looking at whopping fines or even a prison sentence.
When people joked that cars were turning into giant phones, increasingly integrating apps and eradicating moving parts, I don’t think they meant that the worst aspects of mobile business models should come along for the ride. And what’s next? £99 for a loot box that gives you a 5% chance of switching a car’s smart skin from pre-installed turd brown to something palatable? A one-off payment that’s the only way to update your clock during British Summer Time? A radio permanently tuned to LBC, unless you take out a subscription to silence it?
Still, things could be worse. Today’s phones limit the most egregiously skeevy bits to software. Here’s hoping they don’t steal ideas from the car makers who learned from them and start locking down hardware as well. The last thing we need is a flagship blower that charges you a tenner a month to use a zoom lens, put widgets on your Home Screen, change your default ringtone, or turn off notifications.