Using BMW's infotainment system comes at a price

Konstantin Sheiko
February 2, 2018

Long gone are the days when the drivers had to rely on hard copy paper maps for navigation. Today’s modern, refined driver requires a similarly sophisticated navigation system to guide them through their journeys. Being a relatively new product, however, all of these systems have suffered from various drawbacks and technical imperfections. 

It feels good to announce that Apple’ launch of CarPlay fixed some of the biggest problems of in-car infotainment. Until now, even top end units found in BMW and Mercedes-Benz models have had serious drawbacks. The biggest issues were keeping the software in the head units as up to date as possible, so maps, apps, and data all stayed current. CarPlay allows new cars to be equipped with infotainment systems, which effortlessly connect to an iPhone when driving, updating the system over the air. 

This also means that the system interface is the same as a driver’s phone, hopefully saving many of us from anger and potential confusion when using an alien system. Effectively replacing the need for a separate navigation device, running Apple Maps through CarPlay can provide turn-by-turn directions in your car’s instrument cluster. It effectively bridges the gap between your phone and your car using technology, which will be the basis of many car-sharing schemes in the future. Apple’s CarPlay system raised the bar for in-car entertainment and forced car manufacturers to take steps to catch up.

Apple provides CarPlay software access to auto companies only if their built-in infotainment systems meet a certain set of criteria, mainly relating to touchscreen and connectivity hardware. Due to these restrictions, so far CarPlay is available on select cars. Nevertheless, according to expert opinions, CarPlay is a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car. The system takes the things you want to do with your iPhone while driving, putting them right on your car’s built-in display. You can get directions, make calls, send and receive messages, and listen to music, all in a way that allows you to stay focused on the road. Just connect your iPhone and go.

Moreover, using Bluetooth or Doppler, your phone will understand if you are in the car, and activate ‘Do Not Disturb While Driving’. The new ‘user interface’ while you are driving will be a black, distraction-free screen. If you try to turn your phone on, you will get a reminder that you are operating a moving vehicle. Your phone can send automatic replies to people messaging you that you are driving, though you can get urgent messages from select people.

Just as it is with many other popular things in life, the use of CarPlay in a new car model may come with strings attached. For example, BMW was the first and only carmaker brand that offered Wireless CarPlay option. Unlike many other car manufacturers that offer the CarPlay option for free, BMW is planning to introduce an annual charge for the service. Currently, BMW offers CarPlay as a $300 option on car models with built-in navigation systems. Starting next year, however, BMW owners will need to pay $80 per year for the luxury option.

Don Smith, the technology product manager for BMW North America, revealed the new pricing strategy at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show and framed the subscription model as a more flexible alternative to single purchase activation. According to Smith, “This allows the customer to switch devices”. “A lot of people buy CarPlay and think its okay, but sometimes they stop using it, or switch to Android”, he added. The new plan grants free access to CarPlay for the first year of ownership on a new BMW model, after which the $80 per year fee comes into play. Smith pointed out that, for a three or four-year lease, the subscription plan is less expensive than BMW's current one-time fee. However, customers who purchase outright could pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for CarPlay over the course of a car’s lifetime.

The German firm jumped on the CarPlay bandwagon in 2016, and later that year debuted the first car to employ a wireless variant of Apple's infotainment system. Currently, BMW does not offer Android Auto on any of its vehicles. Smith said BMW plans to diversify its virtual assistant integrations in 2018 with the addition of Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. He also added that more Alexa skills would be enabled later this year to control more than just basic vehicle functions such as locks and lights. It does look like BMW is spinning the decision to charge an annual subscription fee for the service as a way to give drivers more choices, which does not really mean much to a potential user, except for the fact that they will be annually charged for using the system.

The introduction of an 80-dollar annual fee has received a negative feedback so far. Almost unanimously the experts comment that it would be illegal to charge a subscription for safety technologies, like seat belts in cars, and CaPlay is basically one of them. The whole point of the CarPlay system is to offer drivers a safer way to access infotainment features like calling, messaging, navigation, and audio playback while in the car. It is obvious that the automakers should not be forced to offer CarPlay mandatorily, but charging for a relatively new, yet necessary service is bad business. Hopefully, the market response proves that. Apple has not yet responded to requests for comment.