Should Car Safety Features Have A Paywall?

Should Car Safety Features Have A Paywall?

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Driving is dangerous. Over 42,000 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2022—but that isn’t a surprise given 90% of households own at least one car.

Fortunately, cars are getting safer. “Automatic Crash Notifications” (ACN) are one such example of new technologies reducing the number of deaths in car collisions each year. Instead of waiting for someone to call 911, ACNs use sensors in cars to instantly alert first responders when a crash happens, getting medical assistance to passengers as fast as possible. Research has shown that ACNs reduce fatalities in traffic accidents, and now more advanced notification systems are expected to be even more effective.

You would think a feature this important to safety would be as standard as seat belts. But instead, companies often have ACNs as a paid feature in addition to the purchase of a vehicle. Nonprofit organization Consumer Reports is looking to change that by putting car companies on blast for making safety a subscription. Their new campaign is calling for companies to make ACNs a standard feature — which only Hyundai has done to date.

SaaS: Safety as a Service

If your internet-connected car knows it’s been in a crash, why shouldn’t it call first responders? Image via Arslan on Flickr.

Putting computers in cars has no doubt created countless benefits for drivers with features like ACNs, but there are other consequences of connecting cars to the internet. Because of their connectivity, internet-enabled cars are tethered to their manufacturers which allows almost any feature to turn into a subscription.

Take Apple, which came out with an “Emergency SOS” safety feature in 2022 that uses satellite technology to allow users to send information in an emergency even without cellular and Wi-Fi coverage. There’s one catch: you need to start paying for it after two years of owning your phone.

Maybe Apple is passing along the high costs associated with these satellites to the users who want to feel more secure. Or maybe it’s yet another tactic to get people to upgrade their phones since the feature goes away after two years. Regardless, the bottom line is that a potentially life-saving feature will have a continuous price tag rather than being baked into the cost of the phone.

Internet-connected devices, whether phones or cars or anything else, have allowed manufacturers to maintain an unprecedented amount of control over products long after they leave the factory. And while internet-connected cars absolutely are in need of software updates for safety and cybersecurity reasons, these same software controls can be used to squeeze money out of customers.

There are comical examples where companies are putting paywalls on less important car features from heated seats to special software-controlled sport modes. But they aren’t always funny. More flagrant examples include Ford’s recent patent application for a self-impounding car—and now life-saving ACNs.

Putting computers in cars gives us navigation, plus access to music and messages. But it also gives manufacturers the ability to turn what should be standard features into subscriptions.

Strings-Attached Ownership Isn’t Sustainable

Companies will need to be forced to make changes to this model of strings-attached ownership of cars. After all, these subscriptions can be lucrative and aren’t confined to safety features. Many consumer advocates point to government intervention to correct this problem, but there seem to be mixed feelings from regulators and governments on what to do about this asymmetrical power between companies and consumers.

The good news is that some regulators are stepping up. Regulators like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are taking on companies with lawsuits and formal complaints against companies like Tesla and John Deere. Tesla has been known to use the internet connectivity of their cars to put up software locks, keeping users from accessing car features. Deere on the other hand is notorious for using software to force farmers into paying for Deere-authorized repair services.

The bad news is that other regulators are not on the same page. Take the recent guidance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) telling automakers not to comply with a law requiring they share key data for car repairs, which would allow car companies to withhold vehicle data from users and keep drivers stuck paying for their authorized repair services.

It’s clear that changing this strings-attached model of ownership won’t happen on its own. But the high stakes of safety features like ACNs show the extreme amount of control that carmakers have over internet-connected vehicles. Safety should be standard, and Consumer Reports’ campaign should be a wake-up call for governments to take action to prioritize the safety of drivers.

More News

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  • 75% of Californians support Right to Repair: A bill is making progress through the Golden State, receiving broad support from both political parties. It has gained endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, local officials, repair shops, and environmental groups. The proposed California Right to Repair Act would be the strongest law of its kind, requiring manufacturers to provide access to repair materials for several years, says Kevin O’Reilly at U.S. PIRG.
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  • There are now over 2,500 Repair Cafés worldwide: Gaining particular momentum in the United States, Repair Cafés are catching on globally as a way to combat the throwaway culture by providing free meeting places where volunteers help repair items and offer instruction.