I sometimes feel my relationship with technology borders on the ironic. Having worked in the software industry in one form or another for around thirty years, I still firmly believe that software is one of those few enabling inventions with which we can lever great change in the world. It allows us to repurpose existing equipment in new and unforeseen ways, and certainly within the software industry a resulting constant is ever present change. Yet outside of work, I’m less of an early adopter: I still prefer paper books, free-to-air TV or movies on disk, and I’ve yet to hit up Ubereats or its gig-economy competitors.
I like to think it’s not because I’m a Luddite – hopefully I’m not just imagining the tech career – but rather because there’s a distinctly dystopian feel to where some of our contemporary tech trends are heading.
Take for example, electric motorcycles: I’ve been riding motorcycles for the last couple of decades or so, and so it’s with an avid interest that I have been watching their very slow adoption of electric power trains. The idea of powering my ride from the sun is glorious, as is the potential for a few new whiz-bang features; even simple ones quality of life ones like a reverse gear for parking, something taken for granted in cars but generally unavailable to a space constrained motorcycle chassis, becomes trivial with an electric drive.
It was with great interest and a little bemusement then that I stumbled upon Zero Motorcycle’s move to unlocking these features with microtransactions.
Indeed, as of their 2022 models you can purchase a motorcycle with heated handgrips all wired up and ready to go, but you’ll need to pay US$195 to unlock them. Even more egregious when shelling out for an electric vehicle for which range and charge time are key performance metrics is that you’ve purchased all the equipment for 10% better range and charge times, but you need to front up with an extra US$2,690 for permission to use the equipment in your garage.
This isn’t the first manufacturer to do this, of course. Recently, BMW began offering the option to unlock features on vehicles using a subscription service. An article at the BMWBLOG offered this by way of justification:
By selling each and every car with heated seats, for example, BMW can have only one seat SKU, which actually makes manufacturing more streamlined and, therefor[e], a bit cheaper for BMW.https://www.bmwblog.com/2022/07/29/bmw-micro-transactions-what-it-means/
Sure, that makes enough sense. But I’m purchasing a seat to which heating elements have been added, and which has been wired and fused in the power supply and vehicle’s communications bus. BMW aren’t going to give that added manufacturing cost away for free, so it’s included in the purchase price, regardless. Which is why I don’t buy into this notion:
You only really use heated seats in the winter, right? At $18 per month, if you pay for heated seats for even five months (adding a fall/spring month in there), that’s $90 per year. On a three year lease, that’s $270 total for heated seats, which is cheaper than buying the option outright. So both BMW and the customer can save some money.https://www.bmwblog.com/2022/07/29/bmw-micro-transactions-what-it-means/
If I was renting a car, paying to unlock certain features would make a world of sense. If I don’t use the heated seats, I (likely) don’t introduce wear & tear on the components and the rental company reduces the risk they’ll have to pay for maintenance & repairs. But when purchasing a car outright – or even leasing, where I’m paying depreciation on the vehicle’s total cost – this just doesn’t compute. I’m not saving money, I’m only paying more.
Let’s look at it another way, and imagine a future where we buy any new smart phone which includes a GPS module. To use the navigation system, you can’t immediately go to the App Store and choose a TomTom/Google/Garmin/Apple maps application, allowing the market to deliver competitive pricing. First, you must pay the manufacturer $100 to unlock the GPS module. I don’t know about you, but I’d be breaking out the string and paper cups.
But it feels like that dystopian reality is practically upon us. While some online games have reacted to criticism about microtransactions by moving to models where the purchases are purely cosmetic, these vehicle manufacturers are apparently including safety features in the lineup.
If we’re willing to put features for which safety is advertised as a key benefit into this emerging category, how long until deregulation sees even additional air bags and traction control become victims of this trend?
How long until a software update from the manufacturer disables my entire vehicle because I didn’t renew my subscription? Or makes my vehicle slower because they think I should afford to purchase a new one?
Perhaps it’s inevitable. We’ve already shown that our phones, being internet connected computing appliances, are very different to the bakelite rotary phones of yesteryear. We’re prepared to purchase a new product every year or four, and we’re prepared to subscribe to plans for connectivity, software, entertainment and more. That cars and motorcycles (and fridges and toasters) are entering this category isn’t surprising.
But I find it a little disappointing. Far from being an enabling superpower for good, the software ecosystem of these devices exists only to make us pay more – after we’ve already paid more for the hardware in the first place. While I’m sure the business engine behind it all is patting itself on its back about how these initiatives deliver record profits, I can’t help but feel that for consumers we’re one step away from a dystopian future servicing our technology-as-a-service overlords.
Otherwise I can just imagine a future where my kids are sitting in their car, unwilling to leave yet while they purchase loot boxes and try to unlock the racing stripes paint job for its e-ink surface.