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FYI: BMW puts heated seats, other features behind paywall

Turn signals have been optional add-ons for decades, mind you

BMW is changing up a gear in its drive to charge people subscriptions for features in their cars, effectively putting functionality behind a paywall.

Jalopnik this week reported the automaker is offering drivers in South Korea heated seats for $18 a month; a $300 fee to permanently access Apple CarPlay; $8.50 a month for automated high beam switching; and $11 a month for the ability to save video from the vehicle's built-in cameras, among other things. It is possible to pay a fixed, one-time fee to activate a monthly option permanently.

It's not obvious when these plans were introduced exactly, and we note South Korea is only the latest country to get the BMW Connected Drive store, where the biz sells subscription services and one-time payments for optional features. The microtransaction marketplace caters for folks in the UK, Germany, and other nations (and no, not the United States.)

South Korean BMW owners have few optional features in their store compared to other countries. In the UK, for example, BMWs can also have map updates for $94 (£79) a year, access adaptive suspension for a $474 (£399) one-time purchase, or pay $891 (£750) for active cruise control. Heated front seats start from $18 (£15) a month.

On the one hand, you could see this as another kind of buy-now-pay-later or hire purchase approach, or some way to buy a model now at a base price and add on features later when you have the money. Cars aren't exactly cheap right now. On the other hand, it may feel like buying a mug and having to rent the handle.

BMW has publicly considered adding subscription services to its vehicles since at least 2020, when The Drive reported potential fees for heated seats and infotainment features. The automaker previously tried to launch $80 annual subscriptions to enable Apple CarPlay, which it was forced to walk back due to complaints. 

The newer, more expensive CarPlay subscription service mentioned above enables Apple's interface on BMW vehicle screens, though this doesn't appear substantially different from the cheaper version the biz canceled.

Nvidia, Intel, and Arm have picked up on BMW's signals: each has indicated its interest in selling chips to automakers with subscription services in mind. That means there's at least two industries that see potential in exploiting vehicle features for recurring revenue. 

But what of customers? According to auto marketing company Cox Automotive, vehicle subscription services are wildly unpopular, with three-quarters of respondents saying they weren't willing to pay monthly for most items on their vehicle. 

Cox found that more than 87 percent of auto buyers thought safety and comfort features, such as heated seats and remote start, should be part of the purchase price, as should enhanced cruise control features such as lane-keeping assistance and automated emergency braking. 

Consumer Reports said in 2020 that BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Porsche and Tesla were all planning some form of subscription service for optional features, even if the hardware necessary for said features were already built into the car. What hasn't been discussed in any meaningful way, Consumer Reports said, are regulations surrounding automotive subscription features.

William Wallace, Consumer Reports' manager of safety policy, said vehicle makers shouldn't be allowed to deactivate safety systems that have been proven to work, even when a subscription expires. And then there's the question of features still working even if backend servers go down or are switched off, security certificate and software license checks fail, vehicles are traded, and so on.

"We're going to need clear rules on the books for safety, energy efficiency, and fair treatment of consumers to make sure that however the marketplace evolves, consumers benefit from the changes," Wallace said. ®

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