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The red interior of a 2022 BMW 7-series shows the steering wheel and infotainment screen.

BMW and Others Pushing Subscriptions for Car Features

If you follow automotive news, one of the stories you’ve probably heard in the last few months is BMW charging a subscription for heated seats. There was a fair amount of uproar over this here in the United States, so it’s not something you’ll have to consider too much when shopping for your next car. At least, not for now. Thus far, BMW has only instituted this particular program in some other parts of the world––most notably in the UK––but the brand is certainly going full steam ahead with the idea of charging its customers ongoing fees for some features.

There are a couple of different ways this entire concept can pan out, and most of them aren’t great for us, the consumer. In general, what this means if you’re shopping for a car right now is not much––you’re not going to run into a lot of subscription features on vehicles at this time. But there’s certainly a change on the horizon, and it’s something that you’re going to need to keep in mind as you shop for vehicles in the years to come. Some of this could possibly work out in your favor, but it’s ultimately going to be one more thing to consider and pay attention to while figuring out the right car to meet your needs.

What BMW Is Doing

In case you’ve missed the story, or you’re not clear on all the details, here’s the gist of it: BMW has started charging a subscription fee to use certain features on its vehicles in specific markets. The main offender that people like to cite, and what made all the headlines, is the heated seats in its vehicles. To be absolutely clear, BMW is not charging a subscription for heated seats here in the United States, only in some other parts of the world. However, since one of these parts is the UK, word traveled pretty fast to other English-speaking countries, like us, and every news outlet ran with the story.

For heated seats, BMW is offering several different ways to get them: customers can subscribe for a year, for three years at once, or pay for unlimited access that unlocks the feature forever. This is important to note because some news outlets are reporting it as a monthly subscription, but there isn’t actually an option to pay for it from month to month. That would have some potential benefits for customers that don’t exist here––BMW’s executives and money-crunchers aren’t stupid, and they’ve ensured the system works in their favor.

It’s worth noting that this absolutely will not start and stop with heated seats––BMW already offers other tech features on a subscription basis (Apple CarPlay, for instance, required a subscription in BMW models here in the United States until 2019). To go along with the heated seats, the brand is now also offering subscriptions for heated steering wheels and the ability to have the exterior cameras, which are used for advanced safety features, record footage outside your vehicle. To be clear, the hardware to heat the steering wheel and seats is already installed on all of these vehicles––customers simply have to pay an ongoing fee for BMW to activate it. Stop paying the subscription, and the feature stops working.

The brown interior of a 2023 BMW X5 shows the front seats.

But BMW Is Not Alone in This

Before we gather our torches and pitchforks to march on BMW’s headquarters, it’s worth noting that it is not the only company dabbling in ways to sell us parts of our vehicles that we’ve already bought. You may remember a story from the end of last year in which it was discovered that Remote Start functionality on Toyota vehicles was tied to a subscription service. Toyota decided to tie this function of the standard key fob, which doesn’t require any additional costs on its end, to its connected services plan that lets you interact with your vehicle through your phone.

Other companies are also looking at a variety of ways that they can control what you can do with your vehicle after you buy it. At one point, Tesla notoriously used software to limit the range and performance of less-expensive models. In case you missed that, yes, Tesla once installed high-quality batteries on low-end models and then used software to make them perform worse than they should until you ponied up to unlock the extra range. Fortunately, Tesla ended this practice back in 2017, which should be a hint to companies like Toyota and BMW that this is not a path they want to go down.

Ways This Could Be Advantageous

Could subscription services for car features be advantageous for us as customers? Yes, potentially. The most-cited example goes back to the heated car seats that BMW has started charging for. People like to say, “Well, you could just pay for them in the winter, but not in the summer, so you save money in the long run by paying less than the price to upgrade to heated seats.” Great example, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

BMW isn’t charging a monthly subscription for this––it’s a yearly fee, so you’re paying for summer and winter. Some people may still cite that the subscription is less than the price to upgrade to heated seats, which simply makes me wonder why is it advantageous for BMW to install the hardware for heated seats into every vehicle and only activate it for a fee? That tells me we’re being overcharged for the hardware and features in the first place.

The only real defense of this practice that makes sense to me relies on the option for a lifetime unlock. If this is coupled with a free trial of a subscription service when you buy a vehicle, then it could become a way for us to try out something like heated seats or steering wheels and see if we like it before committing to it. This could create a situation where you can try out some things without paying the full cost of an upgrade or package at the time of sale, then pay to unlock the features you like while skipping those you don’t care for. But we’ll have to see if this is what we get.

Ways This Could Be Abused

I could write an entire article on how car companies could easily abuse this practice, but most of it is common sense worst-case-scenario stuff. Anyone who plays video games has already witnessed countless ways that companies can use the concept of “microtransactions” to nickel-and-dime their customers beyond the point of exhaustion. Long-term, there will definitely be at least one car company that goes all-in and tries to turn their vehicles into a “live service” that you’re paying for in perpetuity. Why sell a car for you to own when they can sell you a service you must continue “buying” from them for as long as you drive it?

The black interior of a 2023 BMW X6 shows the front seats.

What Do You Need to Know?

Just be careful out there and watch what car companies are doing. If you don’t like the idea of paying ongoing fees or subscriptions for every little thing your car can do, don’t support it. Vote with your wallet, as they say. Don’t buy a BMW if the brand tries to push heated-seat subscriptions on us here in the United States. Or, if you do, don’t be surprised when you’re essentially renting the vast majority of functions on a car that you’re paying full price to “buy.” If we let car companies get away with this stuff, we’re just teaching them how to take advantage of us.