Driving Dystopia: German Automakers Keep Reimagining Vehicle 'Ownership'

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Volkswagen recently announced that it plans on making massive amounts of money by introducing more vehicles with over-the-air updates (OTAs), many of which will be able to store and transfer personal profiles so that users can effectively just rent their vehicles for eternity. Additionally, VW has suggested future models will have ability to lock features (that have already been physically installed) behind a paywall that users can unlock via subscription services — things like heated seats, satellite navigation, or even the vehicles top speed.

“In the future, our customers will buy, lease, share or rent cars just for a weekend, and we can use software to provide them with whatever they need over the air,” VW brand’s sales chief Klaus Zellmer said during an online presentation held on Tuesday. “The ID family has been designed for further development, with OTA updates to improve the software’s performance and tailor it to our customers’ needs.”

Other German automakers have pitched (or introduced) similar concepts over the last few years and it smacks of the terror that is the World Economic Forum’s “ Great Reset” — a plan which envisions a near future were the general populace owns nothing and giant multinational corporations (and their heirs) effectively hold all the cards. It’s the kind of thing one might call you an unhinged conspiracy theorist for believing, until you head over to the WEC’s website to read a dozen or so articles explaining exactly how it’s to be implemented or notice that most Western governments seem to be pushing some variant of the “Build Back Better” campaign. The plot is often the same and hinges upon prioritizing stringent social controls, increased government spending, collaborating with large businesses/banks, and enhanced surveillance in exchange for some vague promises about public safety and environmental reform.

Political implications aside, charging your customers fees for hardware that already exists inside of a vehicle you’ve intentionally deactivated seems truly scummy. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a company that might benefit from slave labor, something Volkswagen was accused of doing in Xinjiang, China (ditto for BMW and GM). But the business has denied the allegations, stating that it would never want to repeat the human rights abuses enacted after its 1937 founding by the then-ruling Nazi Party.

That does not preclude VW from committing lesser evils, however.

Automotive News pulled several quotes from the automaker’s digitalization/mobility strategy, which it called an “Innovation Talk,” and managed to snag some truly unsettling lines. This included referencing an article from Germany’s Die Welt where Zellmer suggested VW could charge customers by the hour once autonomous features become more useful.

From AN:

“We assume a price of around seven euros per hour. So if you do not want to drive yourself for three hours you can pay 21 euros to get it done,” Zellmer told the paper.

VW has said the first over-the-air will be available to ID customers before the end of the summer.

Zellmer said he sees the potential for “triple-digit-millions” in sales through over-the-air upgrades.

At least it’s going to make Volkswagen a richer company. It would be awful to think customers would be getting gouged by having every desirable feature locked behind a paywall for nothing. Of course, it won’t just be VW enacting these policies. BMW and Mercedes signaled their interest in launching nearly identical business strategies, as have a few North American brands. German firms just happen to be leading the charge among Western automotive brands.

It’s a shame because over-the-air technology and automotive connectivity provide some genuine benefits to consumers. The industry just seems preoccupied with using them to dilute the customer’s sense of ownership and swipe people’s private data. While the right-to-repair movement has taken up these new practices with legislators, it’s been an uphill battle and they’ve been forced to combat several of the wealthiest industries ( and their respective trade organizations) simultaneously.

Based on how automakers already package automobiles, nothing leads me to believe the industry will suddenly price vehicles thousands of dollars lower and then give customers the opportunity to activate features for a reasonable sum. They’re going to screw us and do everything in their power to have total control of the market by just leasing/renting products until the secondhand market evaporates and dealerships serve no practical purpose. It sounds a little kooky but we’re already seeing that take place with direct-to-consumer sales, subscription services, and online car configuration. Volkswagen leadership even made comparisons to other consumer products on Tuesday, suggesting that automobiles should be more like mobile phones.

It sounds just terrible and we haven’t even touched on the creepy inclusion of driving monitoring cameras or j ust how much information modern cars transmit back to the manufacturer without your knowledge.

Our only real hope of avoiding this fast-approaching nightmare is telling automakers that we’re not interested and making the ones that are pushing it the strongest help themselves to an extra piece of humble pie. If they’re not making any money on these products, they’ll give up the ghost. But today’s shoppers either seem oblivious to the associated perils of the direction were heading or appear genuinely eager to see just how far the industry can implement its technological agenda. Maybe they’ll change their opinion after spending fifty bucks a month so the vehicle they thought they owned can have its top speed upgraded so they can safely merge onto the highway.

[Image: Volkswagen]

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.

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  • Jpolicke Jpolicke on Jun 13, 2021

    48+ hours now since this was a new story. Too busy gazing at your navels trying to figure out what fits the new editorial direction? The next item for a TTAC Deathwatch: TTAC.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Jun 13, 2021

    Subscribing to a feature in anything you own is ridiculous. The only thing worse is how this site has gone political, and there's no moderation for it.....I got Twitter for the Two Minutes Hate.....

  • Foo Eh. Net present value is in the red, once you add in rapidly rising insurance, late by months basic repairs-and-no availability, battery replacement, future hazmat recycling fees, and even faster depreciation. Wait until litigants win for "too heavy" in accidents... The math is brutal but if you value virtue signalling, some will pay anything.
  • Lynchenstein @EBFlex - All ICEs are zero-emission until you start them up. Except my mom's old 95 Accord, that used to emit oil onto the ground quite a lot.
  • Charles The UAW makes me the opposite of patriotic
  • El scotto Wranglers are like good work boots, you can't make them any better. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles which ironically make great urban vehicles. Wagoneers were like handbags desired by affluent women. They've gone out of vogue. I can a Belgian company selling Jeep and Ram Trucks to a Chinese company.
  • El scotto So now would be a good time to buy an EV as a commuter car?