In the ever-evolving—often in mysterious ways—automotive industry, surprises aren’t unusual. We’ve seen unexpected innovations like ‘subscription’ services for cars (that didn’t go over so well), and Tesla’s Sentry Mode. But what if, instead of subscribing to get access to a set of car models (which is weird, but on some level makes sense), you had to subscribe to features in the car that you own?
This is exactly what BMW has begun to do in its latest vehicles. It’s starting with heated seats, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beams. Oh, and something called ‘Iconicsounds Sport’, which, depending on whom you ask is either genuine or artificially enhanced engine sounds piped via the stereo speakers into the cabin. BMW apparently plans to expand these subscription options to more features in the near future.
The way that it works is that you buy a car, and then, just as you have to decide whether to activate your satellite radio trial, you choose whether you want to pay for things like heated seats, and activate them ‘over the air’. Even though you just bought the whole car.
This idea may have been inspired, to some degree, by Tesla; they’ve offered upgrades for things like more power and self-driving functionality for several years. A performance upgrade actually makes sense, in an electric car, since the motor’s performance mostly relies on software rather than hardware. But it’s still a lot for the general car buying public to wrap its head around.
First reaction: this is ridiculous
Initially, this concept tends to spark outrage in most people. Most of the automotive and tech press has reamed it. My initial reaction was no different. It just seems completely wrong to own a car, and to know that it that has the hardware, and the potential to heat your seats… but not be able to do it. Unless you pay a subscription fee. It’s infuriating.
So, it might not be completely crazy…
After some initial indignation, it’s possible to see that this could maybe make sense, on some levels. For one, the flexibility to pay for or not pay for a feature might be useful, provided that you can easily subscribe and unsubscribe. For example, you might want to subscribe to heated seats and heated steering wheel during the winter, and then unsubscribe during the warmer months.
Another potential benefit is not having to pay for features you don’t want. Most of us end up paying for features (sometimes expensive ones) that we’ll never use, but it’s impossible to find the car we want without them. For example, I never use cruise control (advanced or otherwise), but the last car I bought had an advanced system that was several thousand dollars. I wanted some other options, and it was bundled with them. The feature-subscription model would solve this problem, as well as the pressure to pay for features we won’t use, out of concern for resale.
But what about built-in costs?
One of the main questions I have is whether this is a good or bad thing for consumers, cost-wise.
It no doubt costs more to build more hardware features in—like the sensors required for adaptive cruise control, and the heating mechanisms for heated seats. But am I paying more for those things to be installed on my car (and useless to me if I don’t subscribe)?
Maybe not—manufacturers save a lot if they can make cars with fewer variables; BMW can, essentially, make each model with all the same equipment and only limited variants like exterior and interior color, and physical items like leather upgrades that can’t be ‘upgraded’ via subscription. When you consider the almost infinite permutations of models, options, and colors—and the fact that dealers have to try to guess what buyers will want in a major investment like a car—the feature subscription approach does make some sense.
Will this latest innovation irritate and alienate buyers, or will it be a successful experiment and lead other carmakers to follow suit? Time will tell. But hopefully it will fare better than BMW’s car subscription program.