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Article: Thoughts on BMW’s Decision to Charge Subscription for CarPlay

by on January 20, 2018

Earlier this week, BMW announced that CarPlay would be treated as a yearly subscription option on 2019 and newer vehicles. Previously, it was always a $300 option on cars, in contrast with many manufacturers who include it with all models or at least a certain trim level or higher. I think this move is consumer-hostile, hope it doesn’t become a trend across the industry, and have moved BMW to my “never” list for future vehicles.

Years ago, car audio was a pretty simple endeavor—you’d get a radio, maybe a tape deck, and maybe a CD player. If you wanted anything beyond that, you’d either need to buy an aftermarket radio or find some way to attach an accessory. For many in the early iPod years, an FM transmitter that would broadcast your audio on an open FM frequency or a tape adapter that would allow a device with a 3.5mm audio jack to play as a “tape” were the most popular options. The next step was included auxiliary audio jacks, and eventually USB ports that would send audio and control signals, as well as charge iPods and other MP3 players.

At the time, my old Honda had a tape deck and I eventually replaced it with a radio that included a CD player and 3.5mm audio input. It was cheap, took about an hour to install, and give me much better audio quality. The car after that, a Toyota, already had a 3.5mm audio input, but I was able to secure an adapter that allowed me to add a USB port through the car’s internal CD changer port. When it came time to replace the Toyota, CarPlay was a must-have. I can certainly live without it, but I’ve seen my fair share of terrible interfaces and slow, awful car entertainment systems. For something to function as a dumb display for my phone—and get upgraded with my phone—the ideal was appealing.

I saw various implementations of CarPlay when car shopping, and each mostly worked the same, but control-wise there were a few differences. I also decided that I’d at least look at the default interface as I would be using it in rare instances for FM radio and/or if my car outlasts the iOS platform. Android Auto was a “nice to have,” but not essential, but again, I’m trying to bet on the future.

Ultimately, Toyota was off my list of replacements for a number of reasons, but especially their arrogance that their Entune system was better than interfaces designed by tech companies. I have a family member with a recent Toyota and every instance of riding and trying to do anything beyond play things from the Music app or make/receive phone calls was infuriating. Sorry, but betting against Apple (and to an extent, Google) never seems to work out. Fortunately, Toyota is including CarPlay in the 2019 Avalon, so there might be hope for the future.

During the car-buying process, there were quite a few factors that came into play, and car audio was only a small part of my decision (maybe 10-15% of that). I ended up with a Hyundai, which arguably has a pretty decent factory audio system (it’s based on Android). 95% of the time, I’m in the CarPlay interface and it works as expected. I mostly use the Music app and Overcast, but plan on getting some use with the MLB At Bat app in the spring. I also avoided all the delays at start typically associated with a Bluetooth-paired phone, as I never bothered to do that—CarPlay carries everything iPhone-related over the Lightning cable. Finally, texting with Siri Eyes Free has been a revelation, as some of the other “text with your voice” features that manufacturers have are unreliable or frustrating. I try to keep my possible distractions while driving to a minimum, but every once in awhile a text will come through that I want to hear before I get to my destination. With this, I’m never reaching for my phone.

And that’s where a decision like BMW’s rubs me the wrong way. If something like this is an expensive option (I suspect many of the factory radios have the hardware for CarPlay, but the $300 essentially enables it), people aren’t going to bother with it. Sure, $300 more on a $30-$100,000+ car is not much, but someone may still opt-out. They may also opt-out a year or two after getting the car, thinking they won’t really need it. Don Smith, technology product manager for BMW North America told The Verge the rationale:

This allows the customer to switch devices,” he said. “A lot of people buy [CarPlay] and think it’s okay, but sometimes they stop using it or switch to Android.”

Honestly, that’s a bullshit answer. If a company like Volkswagen or Hyundai can include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and their built-in interface on the same radio, I doubt that any licensing is costing so much money they’ll only sell you a radio that works with your current phone. As I mentioned, my car supports Android Auto and I probably won’t use it, but like that it is there—I may have a friend with an Android phone that can use it, or if I decide to switch, I’m covered. I really have a hard time believing that Hyundai is losing significant amounts of money on every Android user not using Apple CarPlay or every iPhone user not using Android Auto.

The recurring charge also seems like a shameless money-grab and taking car ownership away from the customer, as you have to maintain contact with BMW well after your warranty or included service is over to keep this function working. As much as some dealers are not awful to do service with, I’m really not interested in the whole “relationship-building” aspect that many automakers seem to be employing. It’s simple: make a car that holds up and is enjoyable and I’ll probably be back in a few years for another. I don’t want a recurring subscription of any sort, especially where the function will probably be dead if the company loses interest in supporting it or goes out of business.

I suspect where companies want to compete for our mindshare and attention, having some sort of ongoing bill and account to manage like this will get BMW a few more bucks and will also force people to keep thinking about BMW, but shouldn’t that already happen if they like the experience of their cars?

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