BMW’s Heated Seat Subscription Fee Will Start a War With Hackers
Connected cars and over-the-air updates means that automakers may soon start to hack back.
If you haven't been living under a rock, you've heard about BMW's controversial decision to charge $18 per month for heated seats. BMW's response to the public outcry clarified that it's only enabling a subscription for owners that didn't purchase heated seats when the car left the lot, but that ended up causing even more drama for the luxury brand given that people learned that BMW's seats have the hardware already installed—just not activated without greasing the automaker's palm.
As of now, this foray into "Everything as a Subscription" is only for select markets and for specific products in those places. That hasn't kept the rest of the world from preparing for the inevitable. Experienced vehicle coders are already looking into how this subscription model can be defeated using software-based tools already available on the market.
Vice's Motherboard recently spoke with several shops that offer products to the public which can customize BMWs by allowing the driver to make changes to the vehicle's software. This practice, known as "coding," is achieved by using a special piece of hardware called an ENET cable along with a BMW-produced application, E-sys. Using the cable, software, and potentially a few extra steps involving vehicle-specific code generation, owners of certain BMWs can customize their vehicle software, enabling convenience features that may be paywalled or region-locked.
Coding is actually quite common in aftermarket communities and is far from being BMW-exclusive. There are similar coding tools out there for vehicles already. If you own a modded Volkswagen, you're probably familiar with VCDS. Likewise, Ford owners have Forscan, Toyota has Techstream, etc. BMW's situation is a bit unique, however, given its use of mothership-generated FSC Codes to enable certain paid features, there is a rather large gray market for discount codes that can be installed by anyone with an ENET cable, flash drive, and compatible car.
BMW's recent foray into monthly subscriptions in Korea has sparked an uptick in owners interested in coding their cars. More specifically, owners are turning to individuals on the internet to generate unique codes to enable certain features rather than pay BMW directly. This was the case previously when BMW locked Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on BMW's iDrive system behind a $300 purchase and even considered turning it into a subscription. Fortunately, BMW reversed that decision, but it goes to show just how an essential feature can be easily turned into a monthly cost and the lengths that owners are willing to go to in order to save a few bucks or just not pay the company charging for it.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "With a switch, 12-volt power supply, and a relay, I don't need any fancy software!" And you're probably right, however, heated seats are likely just the beginning. What about auto high beams? Adaptive cruise? Remote start? Nothing controlled by software is safe.
To make matters even more complicated, connected vehicles may make it harder for coders to enable these features in the future. Automakers may use connected services to ensure that owners did, in fact, pay for a service or feature in their car in order for it to stay usable by the owner. For example, when BMW pushed some changes to its ConnectedDrive services, it caused a fleetwide Apple CarPlay outage in customer cars, meaning that BMW was able to remotely disable the feature with an over-the-air update (even if it wasn't intentional). Whether any automaker would use this type of action to disable features in the future is entirely speculation, of course, but is a very real possibility that may be explored to ensure that a paid feature remains just that: paid.
Don't believe me? This very thing happened in 2020 after someone built a hack designed to unlock Tesla's $2,000 "Acceleration Boost" for a discount. Tesla detected the change, and the modder fired back with their "Nice Try Module." You can see where this could easily turn into a game of cat and mouse for automakers.
OEMs across the globe are betting on in-car software and subscriptions being a key income stream. Stellantis, for example, expects $22.5 billion in software revenue by 2030—this might be through performance upgrades or perhaps other means like convenience subscriptions. That also means the gray market coding scene could explode by car hackers that are financially motivated. Or, just maybe, they're plain sick and tired of subscriptions.