Software & You: Who Actually Owns That New Car You Are Driving?

Elon Musk and Tesla have been the prime movers in bringing over-the-air updates to cars. They are part of the “car as computer on wheels” movement that began in earnest when the Tesla Model S first went on sale. There’s a lot to like about connectivity. It allows manufacturers to push new software to cars that are already on the road, keeping them as up to date technologically as the cars rolling off the assembly line today. It eliminates much of the need for owners to make an appointment with a local dealer to have an issue fixed or new software installed. An OTA update usually happens overnight while the car is parked. What could be more convenient?

That word “convenient” is a slippery little devil. In the name of convenience, we now share our personal data with advertisers, hackers, and government snoops and think nothing of it. Our phones track us wherever we go and now our cars do too. That could soon become an issue as rabid, foaming at the mouth vagina police track women of childbearing age in America to see if they are visiting a neighboring state to obtain personal health care services.

Maybe you’re not into women’s rights. Maybe you just want to attend a rally to oppose an oil pipeline even though the state where the rally is being held makes it a felony punishable by up to 40 years in prison to do so. Your car can be made to tattle on you to prove you were there. In a way, it could be the lead prosecution witness against you in court. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?

The Rise Of Subscription Services

Connectivity also has another, far darker side. Manufacturers have decided that their customers may own the wheels, seats, and windows in their new cars, but they do not own the software that operates them. They have figured out there are oceans of profits just waiting to be harvested by controlling access to software features.

The most recent example may seem like a small thing, but it is a harbinger of things to come. BMW is offering customers in South Korea the opportunity to activate their seat heaters, heated steering wheel, and other features via a subscription. Wait, you might say, aren’t the heated seats and heated steering wheel already built into those cars at the factory? Yes, they are. But if you live in South Korea and want to use them, you must pay…and pay, and pay. According to Jalopnik, these are the features and the prices to use them.

  • Heated seats —  $18 a month, $176 for a year, $283 for 3 years, or $406 for permanent access.
  • Heated steering wheel — $10 a month, $161 for three years, or $222 for permanent access.
  • Automatic high beams — $8 a month, $84 for a year, $122 for three years or $183 for unlimited use.
  • Apple CarPlay — permanent access will cost $304.
  • Engine sounds played through the stereo — $137.

After the Jalopnik article was published, BMW was in touch to assure them the company has no intention of pursuing a similar subscription model in the US…yet. Jalopnik warns it is “a preview of the slow march into a money-grab dystopia of having your car’s features locked behind software you have to pay to activate.”

While this may sound like nickel and dime stuff to most of us, the sums involved are huge. According to CNBC, at a Software Day event by Stellantis last year, the company told investors it plans to rake in up to $22.5 billion by selling software subscriptions. That’s in line with what other automakers are expecting as well. I have searched my memory banks to come up with the right word to describe this situation and have decided rapacious is about as accurate a description as one is likely to find.

The Hackers Strike Back

Motherboard, a component of Vice, reports a community of hackers has arisen that will — for a fee — unlock certain features that are software limited or undo certain restrictions that manufacturers may have installed in a car. “We’re always listening to our customers and finding ways to offer the features they’re looking for. As long as BMW makes it possible to activate heated seats, we can look at offering it,” Paul Smith, content marketing specialist at Bimmer Tech, a BMW coding firm, told Motherboard in an email.

BMW coding firms generally offer customers two different ways to receive new features for their vehicle. The company can either offer the coding in person, where a representative will visit the customer at their home and perform the coding there, or they will remotely access the customer’s BMW. While some firms only offer remote coding in the United States and Canada, others perform the task worldwide, according to Motherboard.

The features that coders offer include turning on an alarm sound when unlocking or locking the vehicle which is off by default in some regions; enabling video functions while driving; removing the legal notice on the iDrive BMW entertainment and communications system on startup; automatically unlocking the doors after pressing the Stop Button; closing the car’s windows via the key fob; setting the windows to open with the key fob but keeping the sunroof open; automatic headlamp cleaning, and many, many more.

“When I first started doing this about seven years ago, there were a lot of requests for common comfort features” like using the key fob to open and close windows, an anonymous coder told Motherboard. Those could be done by using a BMW software suite. “But now it’s kind of changed a little bit because a lot of the scene has matured” with coders hacking the car’s firmware, generating fake certificates to enable paid features, or even coming up with hardware solutions to enable latent features like BMW’s driver assist system.

Over-the-air updates allow manufacturers to override many of those hacks, and so the hackers now offer services to reinstall previous hacks after they get deleted. It’s a war that is escalating, but in the long run the companies have more resources at their disposal. Either way, the customers have to pay someone to get the features they want. One hacker said if people really wanted heated seats that bad, they should just pay the subscription fee and be done with it.

The Used Car Conundrum

Tesla is leading the parade to deactivate software upgrades when one of its cars is traded or sold. Some of its batteries are software-limited. If a driver pays to unlock greater capacity, that upgrade goes away once the car is sold. The same applies to Tesla’s vaunted Full Self Driving suite. You pay $12,000 to unlock it, but that is only good for as long as you own the car. Any new owner can pay the fee all over again, but what if you chose to give the car to a child or family member?

It’s a time honored tradition for kids to go off to college driving Mom or Dad’s old car. What happens to that FSD software then? Chances are, if the car is registered in someone else’s name — even if that other person is a child of the original owner — you can kiss FSD and your $12,000 goodbye. You never actually “bought” FSD. You purchased a software license which expired when you transferred ownership of the car. It’s right there in the fine print on page 137 and if you missed it when you signed up for FSD, that’s on you.

The Case Of The Disappearing Battery Capacity

Many Tesla fans are familiar with Jason Hughes. He is a “white hat” hacker who has been fixated on Tesla since the first cars rolled off the line in Fremont. Recently, he told Auto Evolution about a certain 2013 Model S that came to his attention. The car left the factory with a 60 kWh battery that was replaced under warranty several years later. The replacement battery was a 90 kWh unit that gave the car 80 more miles of range. Sweet! The techs at the Tesla service center even took off the old “60” insignia on the trunk lid and replaced it with a “90” insignia.

Then the car got sold. And sold again. The third owner got caught up in the MCU flash drive recall. When he brought the car in for service — with the “90” designation on the trunk lid that Tesla service people placed there — a helpful technician noticed the battery was upgraded and installed a software lock that reduced the capacity of the battery to 60 kWh. The owner was told the software lock would be removed if he paid a fee of $4,500. Hughes says he made this case public because he hates “seeing Tesla derail themselves with this kind of nonsense.”

Tesla says cars sold after July 20, 2022 will not get free basic connectivity for life as has been the case since the first Model S. Now the free service will lapse after 8 years. Beyond that time, drivers will have to pay a subscription fee for basic connectivity, which includes the basic navigation software.

The Takeaway

The idea of that you actually buy a car is becoming obsolete. You buy a chassis that you pay a loan on, you get to pay taxes and insurance for it, and you get to fix it when it breaks. But you only get a license to use the software that operates it. The manufacturer retains ownership of the software and allows you to use it, so long as you pay certain fees and don’t violate any of the terms of the license, which is written in dense, impenetrable legalese that even most lawyers couldn’t decode.

The average price of a new car in America is now more than $48,000. You might think that would be enough to satisfy automakers, but it’s not. They have figured out that they can sell you a car and make you pay extra for things you thought you were getting anyway. Is it bait and switch? Not exactly but it’s close. While we are all celebrating the fact that over-the-air updates save us from greedy dealer service departments, we need to be aware that there is a barb in the tail of this particular advancement in technology. Caveat emptor.


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