G05 X5

Remember back in 2018, when BMW started charging drivers a subscription fee in order for them to use their car’s Apple CarPlay capability? The public reaction to the move was swift and universal enough that, in late 2019, the automaker reversed the decision, and once again made the feature free to use on cars that came with it. A few weeks ago though, when BMW announced Digital Key for iPhone, part of the presentation was dedicated to how, in the future, vehicle options may eventually transition to software services—the type you pay a subscription fee to use.

The implications for what BMW previewed back in June—effectively transforming the car into a sales platform—are wide-ranging and not exactly unexpected in the auto industry, which has become a rapidly changing landscape over the past few years. Imagine owning a BMW with heating elements physically present in the seats, but not being able to use them without a current, active subscription that covers the feature? Think about having a BMW with the best headlight option available, but not being able to use their full capability without paying?

These circumstances are mere speculation at this point, but with the automaker already having tried something similar with CarPlay a few years ago, it’s difficult to rule them out of the realm of possibility.

BMW F44 2 Series Gran Coupé M235i xDrive

On the same coin, there are also potential benefits for the feature-on-demand approach for vehicle options. Imagine it’s summertime; is xDrive really doing any good as you traverse baking pavement on a daily basis for what could be several months of the year? Revisiting the heated seats mentioned above, in some parts of the U.S., you won’t touch that button for half the year, and the same goes for headlights. Do you need the adaptive high beams and cornering when sunset isn’t until the late evening, long after rush hour has concluded?

While features-as-a-service might have the potential to save drivers money under certain circumstances, questions related to the secondary market of used cars and future drivers have been raised. It’s said that BMW has expressed features and options will remain with the car as opposed to with the driver, but Tesla disabling autopilot on used vehicles has already caused a stir in this regard.

Optioning a car with everything you want and potentially having to pay to use features that are physically present within the vehicle is a tough pill to swallow. Nevertheless, as time goes on, more and more of the products and services we use on a daily basis are transitioning to what could be seen as a far more lucrative model (for the firms, that is). It’s already happened with the software many of us rely on, and the same goes for digital streaming services for music, movies, and TVs. It could someday even happen with the exhaust system on your M or M Performance BMW, as the valves which allow the system to unleash the true, farocious sound of the engine are electronically actuated, and can their operation varies depending on what driving mode you’ve selected.

As the market transitions into what could be a new era, it will be interesting to see how an agreeable medium is struck. After all, it’s now easy to spend more money on different streaming services that it may have been to simply buy the upgraded cable TV package, if you’re not careful.—Alex Tock

BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe M Performance Exhaust

[Photos courtesy BMW AG.]

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