Carmakers not giving the customer access to their car’s full potential isn’t new, either. Back in the 1960s, the American car market was so competitive that carmakers launched updated models every year. There might be new paint and trim colors, and there would always be more performance. They achieved this by building, say, a 300-bhp engine but adding baffles and restrictors and maybe a smaller carburetor to de-tune it to 250 bhp, which would be the launch engine tune. Then each subsequent model year they would remove one of the restrictions, gaining power each time.
Today, the same thing happens, just in a modern way. “When the Nissan GTR was launched it had about 480 bhp, and the final editions had about 560 bhp,” says Litchfield. “All Nissan did was keep raising the turbo boost, 0.1 bar at a time. They’d say the exhaust or an intercooler was changed and they might be slightly different, but really it was the boost that gave the uplift.” Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. “If someone gets in touch wanting their Audi R8 or Mercedes C63 AMG tuned, the first thing I ask them is if it’s an R8 Plus or C63 S. They limited the power on non-Plus R8s and non-S C63s simply by only giving those models 60 percent throttle. Probably the easiest performance upgrade ever.”
However, the business of retrospective tuning is changing since Dieselgate, says Litchfield, and this may well impact aftermarket feature hacks too. “Before, with a Bosch engine ECU (Electronic Control Unit), there were three ways of getting in, so if Bosch changed the passcode on one you still had two others. Since the emissions defeat code which led to Dieselgate was discovered, Bosch has created ECUs that can only be accessed using encrypted keys. The latest BMW M cars are among the first to use these new ECUs.”
The other issue is over-the-air-updates. The modern, connected car is in touch with the factory to receive updates for sat nav and suchlike. In theory, its ECU and enabled features could be reset to factory specification, too, overwriting any engine tuning or options unlocking that hasn’t come via the manufacturer or its subscription service.
What is it with the BMW heated-seat subscription, though? Check through the specifications of even the most affordable BMWs and you’ll find that only a few lack heated seats as standard. Meanwhile, if you tick the box for a heated steering wheel on a 1-series it will only cost £150 ($180), as opposed to £150 for a three-year retrospective subscription.
Since the heated-seat announcement, BMW UK released a statement: “The ConnectedDrive Store in the UK offers customers the opportunity to add selected features which they did not order when the vehicle was built … This functionality is particularly useful for secondary owners, as they now have the opportunity to add features which the original owner did not choose … Drivers can also experiment with a feature by activating a short-term trial before committing to a full purchase.”
It’s possible BMW is gauging what it can charge for, or perhaps it sees this as the first step to normalizing the idea of paying for hardware and software features. Some predict that in the future we won’t own cars but will have a car subscription that will allow us to have an appropriate everyday car and request a larger one for long trips, holidays, 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 as wrong-headed.