This week saw BMW announce – via a virtual reality press conference – several features of its all-new Operating System 7, which will arrive in the new 2021 5-Series this month, before rolling out more widely via an over-the-air update.

Some of the features of OS7 feel like real game-changers, like how an iPhone can be used instead of the key fob, and BMWs can warn each other about hazards ahead and slippery road conditions.

But what has garnered the most attention in the 24 hours since journalists removed their VR headsets, is a complex new subscription model.

BMW has dabbled with charging subscriptions for features before. But in the case of asking drivers to stump up $80 a year for Apple CarPlay (which is installed for free on their phone, don’t forget), the business model quickly performed a U-turn after customers complained.

Now though, the subscription model is back. BMW is still being fairly vague for now, and there has been no word at all on prices. But what it has said, is that features like advanced driver assistance systems, augmented sports exhaust sounds, adaptive M suspension and, yes, heated seats, could be offered on a subscription basis, with periods mentioned ranging from one month to three years.

On the production line this makes some sense. It is likely more cost-efficient for BMW to send the same highly-specified cars down the production line, complete with the hardware of those aforementioned features fitted and ready to go, instead of making each car to the buyer’s exact requirements. Buyers can then use the feature if they ticked the box on ordering, or forget it existed if they didn’t.

No word yet on whether a 90s-style blank dashboard button will remind them of their penny-pinching.

When winter comes they might decide to pay for heated seats for three months, which would be activated via a software update. A couple of years down the line, the next owner of that car might decide they want to activate its Adaptive M Suspension and IconicSounds Sport system, by paying and downloading the software update.

That all seems fairly convenient if pitched the right way, but it also looks like BMW charging a recurring subscription for items already fitted to the car. Because that’s what it is.

BMW will of course have factored the cost of fitting heated seats and other hardware into the overall cost of the car, even if they are never activated, so the buyer is in a way paying for their fitment anyway. They just can’t use them until they cough up some more cash on a regular basis.

The German automaker hasn’t yet explained exactly how the system will work, but imagine hitting the heated seat button on a cold morning, only to be told your subscription has expired. Perhaps you could opt for a free one-month trial and hope spring arrives by then.

Some features – again, we don’t know exactly which – will incur a one-time cost instead of a regular subscription.

BMW isn’t the first car company to do this. Tesla lets buyers upgrade their Autopilot system by paying after taking delivery of the car. It also previously unlocked extra battery capacity the same way, since at the time the cars already carried the same physical battery pack, but were sold at a range of prices depending on how much of the pack was available to use. But where that felt like a sensible and cost-effective production method from a trend-bucking startup, BMW’s move feels somewhat less hospitable

In a way though, this all seems inevitable, given how accustomed we are to paying subscriptions for the music, movies, TV shows, books and games we used to buy outright. But it is still quite a leap to go from media that had become digital anyway, to the tangible features of a car – and a luxury car with a premium price tag at that.

 

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