Are you sick of in-car subscriptions yet? Brace yourself. Experts warn more may be coming from auto makers looking to boost revenues.
The latest attempt comes from BMW charging the equivalent of about $23 a month for heated seats in the United Kingdom, Germany and South Korea. The luxury auto maker isn’t planning to charge for heated seats in Canada yet. But charging monthly or yearly fees for every little thing is a troubling trend that’s even trickling into mainstream vehicles.
“Car prices are going up. Cars are getting more complicated and car companies are trying to find a way of monetizing that and turning it into revenue that they can plow back into the development of this whole new generation of technology in electric vehicles and connected, autonomous vehicles,” said Peter Frise, a professor of automotive engineering at the University of Windsor.
It’s not the first time BMW has attempted to introduce subscription fees. In 2019, the German auto maker tried to charge a $100 monthly fee for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto features in Canada. The company axed the plan after consumer backlash.
In the past, auto makers never used to charge continuing fees for heated seats. They would simply put a different seat in the car when assembling it. Now, they put in the same seat and you have to pay a monthly fee to turn on or “enable” the seat heating. “You’ve already paid for the hardware – you just have to enable it,” said Frise. It’s a move that keeps profits healthy, but threatens to annoy even loyal customers.
“Instead of a one-time charge, which most people would accept, they made it a subscription. That’s what people are objecting to. I don’t want to pay for this car every month for the rest of my life. I just want to pay for it once,” Frise said.
He said he doesn’t see the in-car subscription business model “surviving very long.” Instead, he believes it’ll turn into a one-time charge to enable the heated seats.
Rather than purchase a bundle of features packaged with a higher trim as buyers currently do, Frise expects that drivers will be able to select and pay for individual features.
According to a recent Cox Automotive survey in the United States, 75 per cent of respondents intending to buy a new car said they’re not willing to pay extra for monthly or annual in-car subscriptions. “There is some subscription fatigue with streaming services,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive in Troy, Mich. With cars, the psychological hurdle for consumers is being asked to pay for things that are already in the vehicle, like heated and cooled seats. “They’ve been there forever; why should they pay for those? Things like Sirius[XM commercial-free] radio – that’s something they’ve always paid for by subscription, so that makes more sense to them,” Krebs said.
Frise agrees. People object to paying a subscription for a “good.” And “heated seats in a car are not a service – it’s a good. It’s a thing. You can put your hand on it. People don’t view a car as a service. It’s a good … I bought the car. It’s my car. I don’t want to get a bill every month because I like to have my seats heated.”
People are still willing to pay for services like GM’s OnStar, which includes voice control features and the ability to unlock vehicles from an app, he said. And it’s profitable for GM; it earned more than US$2-billion in software and in-car subscription service revenue in 2021. The number is expected to jump to US$25-billion by 2030. Stellantis, too, aims to generate US$23-billion from similar services by the end of the decade.
BMW isn’t the only company attempting to squeeze more money out of customers after the sale. Toyota, Volkswagen, Audi and Tesla, which started the trend, have all done it.
Toyota Canada recently started charging $9.95 a month for Remote Connect, which lets drivers start the engine or lock or unlock doors with a smartphone app. It’s free for a one-year trial and then the subscription starts. Likewise, Tesla charges $13.99 a month for connectivity features such as streaming music and satellite maps. They also increased the price of its “full self-driving” technology in Canada to a one-time charge of $19,500. Tesla hasn’t announced the monthly subscription rate in Canada; in the United States, it is US$199 per month.
In the Cox survey, 25 per cent of people said they would consider paying subscription fees for some safety features, upgraded horsepower or performance packages, over-the-air software updates, stolen-vehicle tracking systems and longer-range batteries.
But there are other concerns, not least of which is affordability, as the price of new vehicles rises along with interest rates, making it harder to finance a car and pay monthly fees. Perhaps most concerning to some, there’s the privacy issue, as auto makers gain the ability to track and control more features remotely.
“There’s a loss of privacy. Do you really want a car company to know where you’re going?” asked Frise. “It’s none of their business. It’s my car. It’s my gasoline. It’s my time. I’m not breaking the law, so leave me alone.”