BMW's Plug-in Hybrids Will Incorporate Gamification, Automatically Switch to EV Mode in 2020

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Next year, BMW plans to equip all plug-in hybrid models with a standard function that automatically switches the automobile into electric mode whenever it enters an area designated for emissions-free driving. While the change is universal, the feature won’t get much action in the United States where government-mandated electrification is less pervasive than a Europe or China.

Still, that’s a sizable chunk of the brand’s global market. Hoping to appeal to it, Bavarian Motor Works went on an electric kick for Tuesday, announcing the electrically powered Motorrad Vision DC Roadster motorbike, Vision M Next Concept, testbed “Power BEV” drive units, upgrades to the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, and a bunch of other tech hand picked for the unsettlingly trendy event.

However, the “eDrive Zone” PHEV geofencing system was one of the few items that has been scheduled for production. Unfortunately, it’s going to incorporate some gamification into the driving experience — making us suspicious of BMW’s ultimate goal.

As numerous European and Chinese cities have designated areas that already are — or eventually will be — closed to internal-combustion vehicles, BMW felt that the eDrive Zones program would be the next logical step for hybrid vehicles. Such a feature would, presumably, also allow the cars to operate in environments that would otherwise be closed to them — broadening their market appeal. That’s going to be handy if BMW still plans on making EV sales represent 30 percent of its annual volume by 2025.

eDrive Zone functions simply enough. The government maps out region it no longer wants ICE vehicles to have access to and the vehicle’s (WiFi-based) navigational equipment uses geofencing data to tell the car which motors can be utilized. But there are also some gaming aspects to the system other media outlets seem wholly unconcerned with and thus failed to report on.

“As a supplement to the BMW eDrive Zone function, the BMW Group is further stimulating an increase in electric driving among its plug-in hybrid customers by means of a novel digital service called BMW Points. The BMW Points app offers a fun source of motivation for PHEV customers to get the most out of their electric drive,” the manufacturer explained. “Kilometres covered using electric power are rewarded with points. High-voltage battery charging is also rewarded under the BMW Points scheme. In this way, drivers are encouraged to give preference to electric drive as often as possible — not just based on environmental awareness but also out of a sense of competitiveness. By collecting a sufficient number of points, participants can gain access to attractive rewards such as free charging volumes on Charge Now; in the medium term, this will also include products of the Share Now and Park Now brands as well as those available in the Connected Drive Store.”

Adding gaming elements to seemingly unrelated products is a good way to keep customers invested but it also forces us to acknowledge other industries have implemented similar strategies, often as predatory marketing tactics. Rewarding customers with “points” encourages their spending, resulting in frequent trips to digital marketplaces that incorporate real-world funds. But there have been studies claiming gamifying encourages a Pavlovian response that effectively allows companies to manipulate customers into doing whatever it wants. The bottom line is that it seems effective and can be used to encourage any desired behavior.

As with Honda’s Dream Drive, it is unclear how pervasive the “BMW Points scheme” will be. It’s simply too early in either products’ lifespan to provide an objective assessment. All we currently know is that BMW wants to use the points to encourage customers to drive on battery power and integrate rewards with the Drive Store. But there’s always going to be an incentive for businesses to tap into gamification as a way to make money and we’re noticing it start to break into the automotive realm. We imagine you’ll be seeing more of it over the coming years, with automakers trying to push these services to your mobile device in order to keep you perpetually engaged with their brand.

Carmakers should be extremely cautious however, as the video game industry has recently taken heat over allegations that it has been unfairly withholding content from customers behind microtransactions (which also use points substituted/exchanged for cash) and may have encouraged child gambling via gamified play strategies. The European Union is currently investigating the matter, with some countries having already made certain practices illegal. China has also fallen under hash criticism for adding game elements to its social credit system, which pits citizens against one another to see who can achieve the highest score based on a set of government-sanctioned behaviors.

We doubt the automotive industry will ever go that far. But it’s a fine and foggy line between what constitutes a fun marketing inclusion and something tantamount to consumer manipulation. Manufacturers hoping to reposition themselves as tech companies would do well not to forget that before they’re staring down the barrel of regulation and wondering how they got there.

[Images: BMW]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

More by Matt Posky

Join the conversation
  • SPPPP SPPPP on Jun 26, 2019

    So it all starts out cute and fun, but then somebody loses an eye. Or worse?

  • HotPotato HotPotato on Jun 27, 2019

    "Next year, BMW plans to equip all plug-in hybrid models with a standard function that automatically switches the automobile into electric mode whenever it enters an area designated for emissions-free driving." Appropriate, since BMW's lame short-range low-power PHEV systems literally exist only to allow drivers into emissions-free zones in cars that do plenty of emitting on their way to and from those zones. Euro PHEVs today are the same bad-faith joke that Euro clean diesels were yesterday.

  • Moris Nice cars .my nissan 1988 beautiful I own one
  • CKNSLS Sierra SLT I am thankful for those who have served/and serve this country to protect our freedoms.The "usual suspects" are quiet.......
  • KevinB Hemmings ran an article on the 1960 Cadillac Series 62 grille and its complexity. It took a lot of work.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Now going for $7000.
  • SCE to AUX Working on a deck project. Also replaced the A/C compressor in a Subaru.