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You might have heard that BMW is planning to charge you for the privilege of using the heated seats already in your car, but it’s actually a lot, lot worse than that. But first, let me explain what’s going on in a bit more detail so you are all caught up. BMW has started offering “trial subscriptions” for a range of features you previously would have had as part of either standard or optional configurations – things like heated seats and steering wheels, adaptive cruise control, adaptive high beams, and speed camera locations, among others. These options aren’t exactly cheap either, with the heated seats costing £15 per month, adaptive high beams costing another £10 and the adaptive cruise control adding a further £35 per month. 

An important piece of context most news stories have omitted about these packages is that there is a one-time-payment option for all of these. BMW calls it the “unlimited” option, which for the heated seats is £350 or just shy of two years worth of the monthly subscriptions. The other, arguably more important context is that these subscriptions – even the “unlimited” option – are tied to you, the current owner, and can’t be transferred to any further owners “without the consent of BMW”. On top of that, according to the terms and conditions BMW can cancel these subscriptions (and therefore disable the features) with just 6 weeks notice for any reason. 

The most confusing part of all of this is that you can still spec these options from-factory as part of standard, non “ConnectedDrive” equipment, meaning it’s yours with no strings attached. So, these options only apply to people who DIDN’T spec features like heated seats or adaptive cruise control, but who BMW decided to fit those hardware modules and features anyway. That sounds confusing as hell – the front radar module alone is a rather expensive bit of kit that I can’t imagine BMW would just decide to install in every vehicle in the hopes that later on down the line you might want to pay them for access to it.

BMW will even give you a free one month trial of any of these features – which now starts to explain BMW’s motives. See, you rock up to a dealership, you look around and decide you want, say a 1 series. You sit down with a sales-person who describes to you a great way to “save money” because, hey, the car can come with ALL OF THE FEATURES, FOR FREE! Just sign here to sign up to the “ConnectedDrive” services and… one month after you’ve got into your car, your heated seats stop working with an error message saying “you haven’t paid us enough protection money”. 

BMW would have you believe their subscriptions are akin to Netflix, but that’s far from the case. The reason that you feel fairly comfortable paying for a service like Netflix, but hearing BMW is going to nickel-and-dime you for use of your heated seats makes your skin crawl is pretty simple. There are continued costs involved in continuing to supply new and existing content on a platform like Netflix. You aren’t just paying for the director’s bonuses, you are paying for their server network, their bandwidth, their continued software updates, and of course the licensing fees for third party content and production budget for their own in-house content. What are you paying BMW for with those heated seats? Oh, right, corporate profits. That’s not to say Netflix is perfect either, just to make that clear, but in the beemer you are paying for something that is no further cost to BMW. Now to the point that you might be thinking – but the hardware is expensive so of course you have to pay for it! You didn’t decide to have that equipment installed. You didn’t ask for it, BMW chose to install it anyway. 

The other bad news is that this isn’t just BMW doing this sort of thing either. Toyota was caught up in a storm when their remote start feature just.. Stopped working – thanks to an elapsed 4 year trial that the second owner never knew existed. Actually, if the original buyer picked the higher end tech package, it would have been a 10 year “trial” instead, and when I say remote start, I mean with the standard, radio frequency key fob. No app, no servers, just the key talking to the car. But the car phoned home, saw the subscription wasn’t paid for, and disabled the otherwise totally functional feature, because a second owner didn’t pay the.. Well at this point you should get the joke. 

So, why are car companies doing this? That one is easy, it’s to provide “secured revenue streams post-sale”. In the pre-subscription days, car companies made money by selling you the car, then any “added services” like warranties and servicing. Ok technically the latter is generally handled by dealerships which are legally separate and themselves pay protection money to their selective brands alongside being the ones to actually buy the cars to keep in inventory, but that’s a whole nother matter. These subscriptions, then, provide a way for someone like BMW to keep taking money from you, even after selling the car. Even after you’ve sold the car, they get to keep making money on it. That’s it. It’s not an “innovative way to solve some problem”, it’s a way to extract more cash, at your expense. 

So who does this hurt? In short, everyone. In practice, the secondary market will be hurt the most. You buying a new car and paying £250 for the 3 year package for heated seats isn’t quite as heinous as when you sell the car at 2 and a half years in, then the second owner finds out the heated seats are going to cost THEM extra just to keep working. The real worst case scenario I can see is these subscriptions being rolled into the monthly lease or financing agreement totals, because then it’ll seem simple to buy the “all the tech for an extra £75 per month” package, then it’s truly screwed. 

Actually, the real worst case scenario is that they take this feature locking too far, and things like some of the engine’s performance, efficiency or even safety features like curtain airbags might be locked behind a paywall. Don’t believe me? Motorcycle gear maker Klim sell a motorcycle airbag jacket that you can buy for cheaper if you opt for a subscription service too, which if you happen to forget to pay means when you high-side like a champ the airbag… Won’t inflate. Seriously. 

There is also the problem of future compatibility. Cars shipped with 3G connectivity are losing access to a large swath of features as US carriers cull the older standard. One day 4G will be old and outdated, and cars that require an internet connection to allow basic features to work – like these BMW ConnectedDrive subscriptions – will flat out stop working, regardless of payment. While there may be upgrades available, or automakers may choose to push a final software update to permanently enable those features, odds are we are going to be left with a load of cars that are perfectly capable of a large amount of useful, or even safety related features, but that won’t thanks to corporate greed. 

The one glimmer of hope is that of hacking. Coding your car to enable otherwise disabled or hidden features isn’t new – I use a third party tool called VCDS for my Audi, and there are plenty for BMW’s too – and tuning companies like Litchfield have said they’ve already cracked the encryption BMW uses on their Bosch ECUs, so popping over to someone like them would be a good shout to much more cost-effectively enable all those otherwise disabled features. Of course BMW will be in an arms race to lock out people like them, but I have high hopes for the community.

So, in short, this is a terrible step in the wrong direction, where companies are choosing profits over people – especially those buying on the used market. While it’s hardly the end of the world, I feel it is important to shine a light on stuff like this so more people can understand what’s going on, and make informed buying decisions where they can. 



I have a passion for cars, driving, working on them and talking about them. Anything fast or electric, is fair game. Own an Audi S4 B8.5 & an SV650S.

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