THERE’S BEEN A bit of a backlash to the news that BMW will now charge owners a subscription to use the heated seats in their cars if they weren’t a paid-for option when new. The German carmaker has been putting extra features like high-beam assist behind a paywall for a couple of years now, and you pay to access the pre-installed software feature. But heated seats are hardware: Pads are integrated in the seat during production, there is wiring and switches. And to top it all, drivers have already bought and own this physical kit, hardware that will not benefit from software updates or regular over-the-air upgrades.
The idea of paying to use something that’s already physically there rankles, like low-cost airline CEO Michael O’Leary’s suggestion he’d charge a pound to use the toilet on Ryanair flights. In his defense, he said he’d give the money to charity and his aim was was to get rid of the rear toilets, fit six extra seats, and make flights cheaper for everyone. BMW’s move looks like a simple way to raise revenue. In the UK, BMW has priced heated seats at £15 ($18) a month, £150 a year, £250 for three years, or £350 “unlimited.” On a new 1-series, they can only be ordered as part of a £600 ($720) “comfort pack.”
Extra features have been built into the software of cars for a number of years, from more sophisticated cruise control with speed management and lane-keep assist, to fancy light shows on startup. They are switched on for top-of-the-range models and left dormant for others, with some offered as “dealer fit” options, sold in the showroom to a customer collecting their new car.
Software as a service (SAAS), then, is not new in the car world. And you won’t be surprised to learn that you can go online and find someone who will unlock these dormant features of your car for much less than a carmaker charges. “This has been popular on VW/Audi cars for a while now,” says Iain Litchfield, boss of Litchfield Motors, one of the UK’s foremost car tuners. He concentrates mainly on cracking engine management systems to get more power, but knows people who can give upgraded sat nav, the latest tune for your adaptive suspension or, indeed, unlock access to your heated seats.
“Typically, features like Apple Carplay and voice recognition can be enabled for around £40 ($48),” says Litchfield. “On our 2014 BMW M4 we hadn’t specified the TV option, but we were able to turn this on in the software. You can even set it to turn on the TV with the car in motion, which is illegal. We changed the DAB radio setup, central locking sequence, even the length of time the automatic wipers run for. This type of personalisation is extremely popular in BMW circles.”
BMW isn’t the first carmaker to charge for hardware that is fitted even if you didn’t order it. At one time, iconic sports car maker Caterham Cars charged a couple of hundred quid for a heated windscreen on the Seven, a useful feature in a car that wasn’t fully waterproof. Thing is, there wasn’t a unheated screen option, so you’d get it whether or not you ordered it, wired in and ready to go.
Carmakers not giving the customer access to their car’s full potential isn’t new, either. Back in the 1960s, the American car market was so competitive that carmakers launched updated models every year. There might be new paint and trim colors, and there would always be more performance. They achieved this by building, say, a 300-bhp engine but adding baffles and restrictors and maybe a smaller carburetor to de-tune it to 250 bhp, which would be the launch engine tune. Then each subsequent model year they would remove one of the restrictions, gaining power each time.
Today, the same thing happens, just in a modern way. “When the Nissan GTR was launched it had about 480 bhp, and the final editions had about 560 bhp,” says Litchfield. “All Nissan did was keep raising the turbo boost, 0.1 bar at a time. They’d say the exhaust or an intercooler was changed and they might be slightly different, but really it was the boost that gave the uplift.” Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. “If someone gets in touch wanting their Audi R8 or Mercedes C63 AMG tuned, the first thing I ask them is if it’s an R8 Plus or C63 S. They limited the power on non-Plus R8s and non-S C63s simply by only giving those models 60 percent throttle. Probably the easiest performance upgrade ever.”
However, the business of retrospective tuning is changing since Dieselgate, says Litchfield, and this may well impact aftermarket feature hacks too. “Before, with a Bosch engine ECU (Electronic Control Unit), there were three ways of getting in, so if Bosch changed the passcode on one you still had two others. Since the emissions defeat code which led to Dieselgate was discovered, Bosch has created ECUs that can only be accessed using encrypted keys. The latest BMW M cars are among the first to use these new ECUs.”
The other issue is over-the-air-updates. The modern, connected car is in touch with the factory to receive updates for sat nav and suchlike. In theory, its ECU and enabled features could be reset to factory specification, too, overwriting any engine tuning or options unlocking that hasn’t come via the manufacturer or its subscription service.
What is it with the BMW heated-seat subscription, though? Check through the specifications of even the most affordable BMWs and you’ll find that only a few lack heated seats as standard. Meanwhile, if you tick the box for a heated steering wheel on a 1-series it will only cost £150 ($180), as opposed to £150 for a three-year retrospective subscription.
Since the heated-seat announcement, BMW UK released a statement: “The ConnectedDrive Store in the UK offers customers the opportunity to add selected features which they did not order when the vehicle was built … This functionality is particularly useful for secondary owners, as they now have the opportunity to add features which the original owner did not choose … Drivers can also experiment with a feature by activating a short-term trial before committing to a full purchase.”
It’s possible BMW is gauging what it can charge for, or perhaps it sees this as the first step to normalizing the idea of paying for hardware and software features. Some predict that in the future we won’t own cars but will have a car subscription that will allow us to have an appropriate everyday car and request a larger one for long trips, holidays, and the like, or a sporty one for fun. This is when the idea of choosing—and paying for—only the features you want doesn’t seem as wrong-headed.