BMW Wants to Charge a Monthly Fee for Premium Features; Hackers Want to Fix That

A recent change in how BMW offers heated seats via a subscription model has caused many to search for hacks and workarounds.
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BMW’S heated seats as a service model have inspired drivers to search for hacks. The news that BMW would now charge owners a fee to use the heated seats in their cars—even though they weren’t a paid option when the cars were new—has drawn some criticism. For the past few years, BMW has hidden premium functions like high-beam assist behind a paywall. The pre-installed software option will be accessible for a fee to car owners.

But heated seats are hardware with wiring, switches, and pads integrated into the seat during production. Most importantly, drivers have already paid for this feature. Heated seats won’t gain anything from routine software updates or over-the-air upgrades.

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BMW heated seat by Boereck

The decision by BMW appears to be an easy way to raise revenue

Low-cost airline CEO Michael O’Leary’s suggested he would charge a pound to use the toilet on Ryanair flights. As a defense, he claimed he’d donate the funds to charity. The aim is to eliminate the rear toilets, fit six extra seats, and make flights cheaper for everyone. BMW charges £15 ($18) per month, £150 per year, £250 for three years, or £350 “unlimited” for heated seats in the UK. They are only available as part of a £600 ($720) “comfort pack” when ordering a new 1-series.

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BMW IX 2
BMW IX by Pixelatedfacealex under CC BY-SA 4.0

For many years, more functions have been incorporated into car software, ranging from fancy light shows when the car first starts to more advanced cruise control with speed management and lane-keep assist. These features are activated for premium models and left inactive in others. Some are available as “dealer fit” options, which are sold in the showroom to a buyer picking up their new car.

Software as a service (SAAS) is not new in the car world

It’s not surprising to learn that users can go online and find someone who will unlock these “hidden” car features for much less than what the carmaker charges.

According to Iain Litchfield, owner of Litchfield Motors, one of the top auto tuners in the UK, “this has been popular on VW/Audi cars for a while now.” He focuses mainly on cracking engine management systems to gain more power but knows people who can give the latest tune for your adaptive suspension or, indeed, unlock access to your heated seats. 

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According to Litchfield, technologies like Apple Carplay and speech recognition can typically be activated for about £40 ($48). “We didn’t specify the TV option for our 2014 BMW M4, but we were able to enable it in the software. Even though it is forbidden, you may program it to turn on the TV while the car is moving. We adjusted the DAB radio settings, the central locking procedure, and even how long the automatic wipers ran. This kind of customization is prevalent in the BMW community.

BMW is not the first automaker to be involved

The idea of paying to use something already physically available is annoying. While some connected car companies now charge owners to use physical hardware they already bought, some are pushing back. The German automaker is not the first to charge for hardware that is installed even if it wasn’t part of your order. The Caterham Seven’s heated windscreen from the Iconic sports automaker, Caterham Cars, costs a few hundred pounds, which was a reasonable price for a feature that was helpful in a car that wasn’t completely waterproof. The problem was that there was no unheated screen option, so whether you purchased it or not, you would receive it hooked in and prepared to use.

It’s also nothing new to see automakers not allowing customers to use their cars to their full potential. The American auto industry was so fiercely competitive in the 1960s that automakers introduced new models yearly. New paint and trim colors may be used, and there would always be an increase in performance. For instance, they were able to accomplish this by manufacturing a 300-horsepower engine. But they detune it to 250 bhp, which would be the launch engine tune by adding baffles, restrictors, and possibly a smaller carburetor. Every model year after that, they would lift a restriction, increasing their power every time. The same thing still occurs today, but differently – car tuning. 

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Geneva Motor Show 2011 BMW M3 Coupe Engine
Geneva Motor Show 2011 – BMW M3 Coupe Engine by Cedric Ramirez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Car retrospective tuning

According to Litchfield, the Nissan GTR initially had roughly 480 horsepower, while the final versions had about 560 horsepower. “Nissan only continued to increase the turbo boost by 0.1 bar increments. In reality, the boost was what provided the lift, despite claims that the exhaust or an intercooler had been modified. Sometimes, it’s even more straightforward. “The first thing I inquire about when someone contacts me about tuning an Audi R8 or Mercedes C63 AMG is whether it is an R8 Plus or C63 S. They can reduce the power of Audi R8 or Mercedes C63 AMG by simply providing non-Plus R8s and non-S C63s a 60 percent throttle. Probably the easiest performance upgrade ever.”

2012 Mercedes Benz C63 AMG Black Series
2012 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Black Series by MrWalkr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

But according to Litchfield, the retrospective tuning business has changed since Dieselgate, which could affect aftermarket feature hacks. “Before, there were three methods to enter a Bosch engine ECU (Electronic Control Unit). So if Bosch changed the passcode on one, you still had two other options. Bosch has developed ECUs that can only be accessed via encrypted keys as a result of the emissions defeat code that caused Dieselgate to be found. Among the first to adopt these new ECUs are the most recent BMW M vehicles.”

Over-the-air-updates

Over-the-air updates are a different problem. The modern, connected car would have to contact the factory for updates on the sat nav and other features. The ECU of the vehicle and any feature that have been enabled theoretically might be reset to factory settings, overwriting any engine tuning or feature unlocking that did not come from the manufacturer or its subscription service.

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But what is a BMW heated seat subscription?

According to a review of their specs, only a few BMWs, even the most affordable ones, lack heated seats as standard. A heated steering wheel on a 1-series will only set you back £150 ($180) compared with £150 for a three-year retrospective subscription. Since Tier 2 owners now have the option to add items the original owner didn’t select, BMW indicated that the function is especially beneficial to them. Before making a full purchase, drivers can also activate a brief trial to test out a function.

BMW might be considering its pricing options or seeing this as a first step toward standardizing the concept of paying for hardware and software functionality. Some believe that instead of owning automobiles, we will rent them, allowing us to have a daily car while also requesting a larger vehicle for longer journeys, vacations, etc., or a sports vehicle for entertainment. It seems appropriate at this stage to select only the features you want and make payments for them.


Featured image: 2019 BMW X1 sDrive20i by Bindydad123 under CC BY-SA 4.0

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