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The auto industry has picked up a thing or two from Silicon Valley.
It’s 2032, and you’re driving to work. Your 2028 sport sedan isn’t the newest thing on the block, but you prefer its light, direct driving experience over this year’s bloated crap. As you wait at a light, you hear a chime from the dash, followed by the slightly off-kilter voice of Bimmi, the artificial-intelligence driver’s assistant. “ComfortPlus convenience package access has expired,” Bimmi reports in her stern, flat tone. Your heated seat goes cold; the massage fingers kneading your lower back freeze awkwardly, poking your vertebrae.
Turns out, today marks four years and one day since your car was delivered. Your complimentary access to ComfortPlus, SafetyPlus, and six other digital convenience packages has expired. An email buzzes your smartwatch, instructing you to set up a recurring subscription payment for the options your car just lost. You hem and haw for a moment, but decide to do it. Just one problem—you forgot your log-in info years ago.
This story originally appeared in Volume 8 of Road & Track.
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Automakers are already laying the foundation for this minor dystopia. It’s all made possible by over-the-air (OTA) updates, which allow modern cars to download new software by connecting to a home Wi-Fi network or through a built-in mobile data connection like the one in your smartphone.
Tesla harnessed the power of OTA updates first, in 2012. Since then, the company has beamed out new software to improve vehicle performance, update Autopilot semi-autonomous driver assistance, and add gimmicks—like a whoopie-cushion button—to the dashboard touchscreen.
Tesla isn’t alone. Since 2018, BMW has offered Remote Software Upgrade, which lets owners in certain non-U.S. markets download upgraded vehicle functions including automatic high-beam headlight control, adaptive cruise control, and augmented engine noises that play through the car stereo. Mercedes-Benz’s latest electric sedan, the EQS, has rear-axle steering that can turn the rear wheels up to 4.5 degrees—until you download software, optional in most European markets, that unlocks 10 degrees of rear-steering angle.
This smartphone-like ability to remotely update software has led carmakers to pursue another Silicon Valley trend: the subscription fee. Consider that most customers don’t buy hard copies of movies—they subscribe to streaming services.
Some automakers already charge a recurring fee for their most high-tech features. Audi bills $85 a month for a package that includes in-car Wi-Fi and upgraded navigation. Volkswagen charges $49 a year for a nav package with real-time traffic and parking data, plus $9 a month for its most advanced voice-recognition system. General Motors practically invented in-car subscriptions with OnStar, the safety and convenience system launched in 1996. Today GM’s expanded Super Cruise semi-autonomous system will require a monthly subscription after the complimentary new-car period expires.
Here’s the thing: If automakers can grant you access to digital features via OTA software updates, they can just as easily take them away. The industry long ago figured out how to squeeze a second dose of profit out of used cars via certified-preowned programs. It’s not hard to imagine automakers turning that grip toward customers, charging second and third owners to access factory equipment and capabilities.
As customers, we’re willing to pay to lease our streaming content and apps. To carmakers, charging rent on things like heated seats, blind-spot monitoring, and real-time parking updates must seem like the logical next step. It’s all part of the inexorable march toward a future where nobody owns anything and even our automobiles can be remotely bricked if we don’t pay the monthly tab.
It’s a future that sounds particularly unpalatable to us. We prefer our out-of-warranty luxury cars to lose their comfort features the old-fashioned way: when they break.