Your Used Car May Soon Come With Subscription Fees

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Automakers are just starting to figure out how to transform used car owners into subscribers. Today, most of them reach used-vehicle owners either when someone buys a used vehicle through a certified dealer (about one-third do in the US) or when that new owner seeks out its app. (Automakers also reach out to owners in the case of recalls, through highly regulated contact with local motor vehicle departments.)

General Motors spokesperson Anna Yu declined to share specific numbers on subscribers who drive used cars, but she says that “second owners are some of our most loyal customers”—often because they proactively reached out to ask about subscription-based products like OnStar or Super Cruiseits advanced driver assistance feature.

Cariad’s Bensel says the VW-owned company is able to push “highly targeted digital campaigns”—that is, ads—directly onto drivers’ control panels or apps. The connectivity now present in some new and newer used cars, he says, also allows Cariad to pull data that help VW “better understand the usage of our vehicles as well as customer needs over a lifetime.” More data, in other words, means automakers could maybe build better products attractive to drivers of cars both new and used—and likely helps tune those digital ads too.

Drivers of used cars whom automakers have a direct line to—whether by email or app—are often offered free trial periods aimed at hooking a consumer to the subscription model of car ownership. But many drivers of used cars aren’t so easily targeted, Especially those who don’t buy their cars through automakers’ dealer-controlled networks.

A 2021 survey of more than 2,000 US car owners led data and analytics company LexisNexis Risk Solutions to estimate that 83 percent of owners of used cars with built-in connectivity “remain untapped”—meaning automakers had left money on the table.

Since 2021, LexisNexis has offered a service called Owner Check aimed at helping automakers root out used car owners. It can link “disparate data sets” to determine when a car has a new owner, and conversely, when a person has a new car, says Dave Nemtuda, the company’s head of automotive product. The company won’t disclose which automakers use Owner Check, but it says companies accounting for 65 percent of the global auto market are either testing or in discussions about the service.

All these new subscription offerings create a new way for automakers to compete—and to position their brand in relation to others. Volvo’s deputy CEO Björn Annwall says the company feels it’s unfair to charge extra to simply activate hardware that’s already in a car—“as in the heated seat,” he says—but it’s OK to charge for more complex software. An example of that might be a parking aid that stitches images together from multiple cameras. “This is partly market research, but partly it’s just common sense, ” he says.

It’s a reasonable theory, but like the subscription strategies of all automakers, one that’s largely untested. Ondrej Burkacky, a senior partner with the consulting firm McKinsey who works in automotive software, says some industry projections for subscriber opist over counts and revenue have profit

The unanswered question, he says, is this: “What are people really going to pay for?” VW’s Cariad reported a $2 billion annual loss last year, amidst software product delaysand it is not the only automaker that has struggled to build easy-to-use systems. As these companies’ software and subscriber drives expand to owners of used cars, so too will the potential for their hopes to be dashed—or to get people really, really mad.

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