Car manufacturers not giving the customer access to the full potential of their car is not new either. In the 1960s, the American car market was so competitive that car manufacturers launched updated models every year. There could be new paint and trim colors and there would always be more performance. They accomplished this by building, say, a 300 horsepower engine, but with baffles and restrictors and maybe a smaller carburetor to tune it to 250 horsepower, which would be the starter motor tuning. After that, they would lift one of the restrictions every subsequent model year and get more power each time.
Today the same thing is happening, just in a modern way. “When the Nissan GTR was launched it had about 480 horsepower and the last versions had about 560 horsepower,” Litchfield says. “All Nissan did was increase the turbo boost by 0.1 bar each time. They would say the exhaust or an intercooler was changed and maybe they were something different, but it was really the boost that gave the upgrade. Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. “When someone contacts us who wants to have their Audi R8 or Mercedes C63 AMG tuned, the first thing I ask is whether it is an R8 Plus or C63 S. They limited power on non-Plus R8s and non-S C63s by simply giving those models 60 percent throttle. Probably the easiest performance upgrade ever.”
However, the business of retrospective tuning has been changing since dieselgate, Litchfield says, and this could affect aftermarket feature hacks, too. “Back in the day, with a Bosch engine ECU (Electronic Control Unit), there were three ways to get in, so if Bosch changed the passcode on one, you had two others. Since the discovery of the emissions code that led to Dieselgate, Bosch has created ECUs that can only be accessed with encrypted keys. The latest BMW M cars are among the first to use these new ECUs.”
The other problem is over-the-air updates. The modern, connected car is in contact with the factory to receive updates for navigation and the like. In theory, the ECU and enabled features can also be reset to factory specs, overriding any engine tuning or unlocking options that didn’t come through the manufacturer or its subscription service.
What’s with the BMW heated seat subscription though? Check the specs on even the most affordable BMWs and you’ll find that only a few have heated seats as standard. Meanwhile, if you check the box for a heated steering wheel on a 1 Series, it’ll cost just £150 ($180), as opposed to £150 for a retroactive three-year subscription.
Since the announcement of the heated seats, BMW UK has released a statement: “The ConnectedDrive Store in the UK offers customers the option to add select features that they did not order when the vehicle was built… This functionality is particularly useful for secondary owners because they now have the ability to add features that the original owner didn’t choose…Drivers can also experiment with a feature by activating a short trial period before making a full purchase.”
It’s possible BMW is measuring what it can charge, or maybe it sees this as the first step towards normalizing the idea of paying for hardware and software features. Some predict that in the future we will not have cars, but will have a car subscription that will allow us to have a suitable everyday car and request a bigger one for long trips, vacations and the like, or a sporty one for fun. This is when the idea of choosing and paying for only the features you want doesn’t seem so wrong.