BMW Is Getting Ready for Apple Car Key, But It Could Require a Subscription

Bmw Key Fob Relay Box Thefts Credit: Mohd Syis Zulkipli / Shutterstock
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Perhaps one of the most interesting new features that Apple announced during its iOS 14 unveiling at WWDC last month is something that users won’t even need to wait for iOS 14 to enjoy — at least for those who are willing to buy a new BMW to take advantage of it.

As we noted earlier this week, Apple will be bringing its new Car Key feature to the upcoming release of iOS 13.6, which is already in its third public beta and expected to hit a wider release any day now — just in time for the new BMW models that will be coming out to include the feature — and it looks like BMW is now making preparations on its end as well, with an update to its BMW Connected iPhone app that’s just hit the App Store to roll out support for the new feature on the German automaker’s end.

Notably, however, the new Apple-BMW partnership comes at the same time as another surprising announcement from the company that suggests that Car Key could become a feature that requires users to pay a subscription fee.

‘Features On-Demand’

As The Verge reports, BMW is apparently working toward a new “microtransaction” business model that could see them nickel-and-diming car buyers by offering to unlock specific car features for additional fees, essentially creating a business model where customers pay a subscription for option packages rather than simply bundling them into the upfront cost of the vehicle.

BMW infamously tried this with Apple CarPlay last year, proposing that owners pay an $80/year fee for access to Apple’s iPhone-enhanced in-car infotainment features. While the idea seemed poised to infect other carmakers too, the German carmaker suddenly reversed course last December, seemingly due to the chilly reception the idea received from BMW owners.

Now, however, it looks like this may have just been the first step in what is ultimately a larger plan to be able to charge a subscription for just about every feature on newer BMWs, from Apple CarPlay to adaptive cruise control and even heated seats, and it’s not hard to see how Car Key could easily get caught up in this new business model.

In all fairness, BMW isn’t the first to come up with this idea — that distinction goes to Tesla, which already sells access to a variety of features that can be enabled after purchase, even going so far as to limit battery packs to reduce the range of its vehicles, forcing Tesla owners to pay extra if they want extended range.

However, Tesla is arguably a niche class of vehicle compared to the more popular BMW brand, and BMW owners aren’t accustomed to this kind of business model. That may not stop BMW from forging ahead, however.

BMW announced earlier this week that all of its vehicles that are equipped with its “Operating System 7” software will be getting an automatic update that will pave the way for features to be enabled or disabled by the BMW mothership, which the company is dubbing “Digital personalization with features on demand.”

How It Could Work

Depending on how BMW actually approaches this, it may not be as insidious as it sounds. For example, at its most innocuous, the feature might simply offer a way for customers to make aftermarket one-time purchases of features or option packages that they didn’t opt to buy when they originally purchased their vehicle. Certainly, this could be a boon for BMW owners, since it would open new ways to get options added without the time and effort of a visit to the dealership. Didn’t opt for automatic high beams or heated seats? Pay a small fee in the BMW Connected Store and your car will suddenly have the feature.

However, there have also been reports that the automaker could be planning to adopt a subscription model, allowing BMW owners to “book” features for as little as three months. This could provide the option of only paying for heated seats in the winter, for example, or only adding adaptive cruise control when you’re expecting to take a long highway road trip.

Still, what may be the most frustrating thing for BMW owners will be overcoming the psychological disconnect between the intellectual property costs of a feature — the research and development and engineering that goes into it — and the actual physical hardware. In other words, if BMW is going to start making every possible feature available by subscription, that means that all of its vehicles have to include all of the necessary hardware as soon as they roll off the line. So if your new BMW doesn’t have heated seats, it’s not because the heating coils aren’t actually installed in the seats, but just because you haven’t paid for access to them. It’s a familiar concept in the computer industry, but it likely won’t sit well with customers who feel that that should be able to truly own a piece of physical property, including all of the features that have already been built into it.

What About Car Key?

To be clear, at this point BMW hasn’t said anything about how this will affect Apple’s Car Key, and in the short term, we suspect it won’t. BMW has made a lot of noise about Car Key being available on all of its newest cars, and of course it prides itself on being Apple’s first partner for the technology, so at this point, Car Key is going to be available on almost all 2021 BMW models. However, we wouldn’t be surprised if it someday becomes a most costly subscription option as part of BMW’s new business model.

The release notes for the BMW Connected app pretty much spells out the list of vehicles that will be getting Car Key support this month, which will include almost the entire 2021 lineup: Series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 models as well as the X5, X6, X7, X5M, X6M, and Z4, as long as they’re manufactured after July 1, 2020. The BMW Connected app will allow users to see which vehicles are compatible at a glance by highlighting them on the vehicle tab.

Car Key will be supported on both the iPhone and Apple Watch, although you’ll need at least a 2018 iPhone model (an iPhone XR or an iPhone XS) and an Apple Watch Series 5 or newer, and of course iOS 13.6 is a prerequisite, likely along with whatever watchOS 6.x release will accompany it.

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