In BMW’s announcement of a wide-reaching new connected car software rollout yesterday, a small nugget of information became a big talking point: the brand will now use a subscription-based scheme for car options.
Essentially, what this means is that your BMW will now be sold with optional software and hardware already installed, but not switched on. Users can then log on to the ConnectedDrive Store and ‘activate’ specific features, such as high beam assist and active cruise control, for a flat fee or a monthly subscription.
High beam assist is a one-off £160 add-on, for example, while you can now trial various infotainment-based online services for £1 for the first month. But more hardware-based features, such as adaptive suspension and even heated seats, are set to move to this payment approach.
Of course, this provoked a rather visceral reaction on social media, and I can understand why. There is already industry concern over the propensity for people to tie themselves into car finance deals they can’t necessarily afford, and adding monthly payments for options would make this ever more acute.
But maybe we should calm down a bit. Firstly, this isn’t really new: Tesla confirmed earlier this year it would offer its Full Self Driving package as a subscription service to little uproar. And BMW has tried similar before, U-turning on its decision to charge Apple CarPlay users £85 a year for access after it was widely criticised. Maybe the same will happen here.
For purely software-based add-ons, the idea does make sense, though. We’ve known for years that many cars come with pre-installed wiring and features that essentially just require an ECU flash to activate them. It’s often cheaper for manufacturers to simply install the wiring to every car rather than have different looms and production processes for each car going along the line. I can see the logic of, for example, paying to use active cruise just for a month if you have a big road trip coming up, too.
BMW says this makes sense because the take-up for features such as active cruise isn’t all that high. Fair enough, but there are many hurdles it will have to jump before this can become a more widespread reality.
For example, is BMW really going to install a heavy, complex seat heating system in every car – even ones in warm climates where they’re unlikely to have much subscription take-up – in the vague hope that they recoup the cost somewhere down the line? It also seems open to abuse: software hackers would be straight on the case working out how to bypass the charges.
I’m as wary of a fully connected future as many of our readers are, so this area deserves all the debate it’s attracting. Let us know what you think in the comments.