Digital Rights Management (DRM) has long been a point of contention for anyone who uses digital media.
In 1983, a Japanese engineer named Ryuichi Moriya used a combination of encryption and special hardware to create a system software, the first example of DRM technology. Before 1998, when the United States passed the Digital Copyright Act (DMCA), companies were looking for ways to protect their digital IP and protect it from illegal copying and distribution.
A new sector aims to make the most of DRM and all that it offers: the automotive industry. How can consumers expect automotive DRM to take shape, and what will happen to the sector if "automotive as a service" takes off?
DRM in cars
This is not the first time that car manufacturers have tried to include DRM in cars. In 2013, the Renault Zoe came with a leased battery that owners could not replace without going to a licensed dealer. In addition, a car's DRM can prevent the batteries from charging, effectively turning the car into an expensive paperweight.
With the development of electric vehicles and hybrids reshaping the automotive industry, the idea of a manufacturer being able to brick your car with the push of a button does not inspire consumer confidence.
Toyota tried something similar with the remote start feature in models released after 2018. The Toyota purchase came with a free three-year subscription to Toyota's connected services. When the subscription expired, the remote start feature also expired, unless owners wanted to pay an additional subscription fee.
The company explained that the feature requires a cellular connection, which incurs a monthly fee. Unfortunately, for cars in the early stages of development, the technology relied on the 3G mobile network, which will be discontinued in 2022. Toyota patched those vehicles so the feature no longer required a subscription, but it still left a sour taste in consumers' mouths. .
These are just two examples of how auto companies are slowly moving toward subscription models to boost profits in response to consumers keeping their cars for longer periods. Everything from heated seats and steering wheels to autonomous driving features and even extra power or rear-wheel steering can be locked behind a pay screen or tied to subscription services.
Automotive products as a service
Every few months, someone adds the tagline "as a service" to something we're already used to, trying to increase the price for it or change the perception. The purpose of turning something into a service is to add a fee for something we already use.
When BMW locked its heated seats in the European market, it turned convenience into "comfort as a service." Such well-known manufacturers as BMW, GM, Hyundai and others are working on transferring many of their additional functions to a mandatory subscription.
GM is the biggest offender in the news right now. The manufacturer recently announced that its previously optional OnStar service will become mandatory for new models. New buyers who don't want to pay for a subscription they may never use have another option: pay the full amount upfront, with prices ranging from $1,500 to $1,675 for a three-year subscription. The price is included in the price of the vehicle, so even if you decide never to activate the subscription, you're still paying an additional $1,500 on top of the price of the car or SUV.
GM could have blamed inflation for the increased cost, raised the car's MSRP and offered a free OnStar subscription as an incentive to buy. Instead, they chose to push the automotive-as-a-service narrative and move into the territory of maligned subscription models.
Will consumers be able to fight back?
Do consumers have a way to resist the spread of DRM in cars? Not individually. It will take a concerted industry-wide effort and may even require some legislative intervention to prevent car manufacturers from implementing DRM in their vehicles or moving to a car-as-a-service model. It's not as simple as telling someone to turn down a new car.
Countries around the world are working on legislation to ban the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines between 2025 and 2040. Keeping older vehicles when the infrastructure to support and power them no longer exists will put buyers at a distinct disadvantage and force them to buy a new car equipped with DRM and all the subscription services a manufacturer can dream of. The easiest way to combat DRM in cars is to start before the technology is even more entrenched in the industry.
A look into the future
The growing popularity of electric vehicles and the prospect of self-driving cars create conditions for the introduction of DRM in cars. Car building as a service might sound good on paper, but it's ripe for abuse and could leave people with fancy paperweights in their garages if they can't afford the monthly subscription fee.
About the author
Emily Newton is a technical writer and editor-in-chief at Revolutionized. She enjoys researching and writing about how technology is changing the industrial sector.