The subscription economy will make drivers poorer, but classics are an escape

Mustafa Ciftci/Getty Images

What did your parents have to pay for when you were little?

For my generation there was the school uniform and patches for my worn-out jeans, maybe a bus pass, unless you went to school on your Raleigh Equipe racer or, for cool-kid points, a Diamondback BMX. And, if you were lucky, there was some pocket money for sweets, records, and then—when your oldest-looking mate could get served—beer. (Drinking age in the U.K. age is 18, not 21 as in the States.)

Come the weekend, you’d nag mum and dad to go to Radio Rentals for a new telly and new-fangled video recorder, so you could record episodes of Knight Rider and The A-Team. And when no one was looking, you’d program it to record An American Werewolf in London.

Things are a bit different now. There are kid-friendly bank accounts that need continual feeding to fuel children of the consumption age. The television is really a computer, streaming back-to-back binge-a-thons via paid-for services—Apple, Amazon, Netflix.

Music these days is piped around the Mills house by Apple and Spotify. Online gaming needs a PlayStation Plus account. The coffee capsules arrive via a Grind subscription (compostable, you see). Countless parcels arrive on an almost daily basis, through Prime. Our dinner is often delivered by Hello Fresh.

As for the university and work life, there are subscriptions to Gmail, to Dropbox, to Office 365—I could go on. And on. And we aren’t even as hooked by the subscription economy as some families we know.

When I open my banking app, there are 20 different subscription offers tailored to me, chasing my money, every month, for as long as I enjoy—or, more likely, forget to cancel—the subscription.

We were told the subscription economy would make life easier, that little bit more manageable, for everyone. But it’s only making us poorer. Just as car finance took off because we all like new, shiny stuff that we can’t necessarily afford, these monthly plans are hiding the true financial burden.

So imagine what driving, in the loosest sense of the word, will be like in the future.

Toyota Subscription Services Pricing

We don’t have to go too far back in time to remember when driving was a way to switch off from a hectic life and focus on, well, the mental and physical act of driving. But as self-driving looms on the horizon, the business of making money out of drivers is changing. Gone is the quaint notion that there is some profit in selling a car, a few options and finance, and a bit more profit in aftersales. Instead, cars are set to become the ultimate snooping device when it comes to knowing as much as possible about you, where you live, where you work, your shopping habits, sexual habits, and health conditions (yes, really to those last two, it’s already a thing), your inner-most thoughts (as the always-on mic that you neglected to switch off listens in), which drive-thru your kids prefer …

We’ve already reported on how subscriptions will allow you to switch on options, from heated seats to range-boosting battery software, active safety systems to full self-driving capability. (Which, I admit, I have argued, has the potential to be a good thing.) But … that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With a captive audience at its fingertips, the car industry wants to mercilessly monetize drivers.

GMC connected services smartphone app

There will be offers of wealth management for the rich and loans for the squeezed middle; gym subscription deals along your commute and shopping discounts for after work. On and on it will go, because carmakers will make far more money this way than simply by selling cars. General Motors predicts that in two decades time, in-car subscription services will earn it $25 billion, a similar sum to Netflix and Spotify now. Ford is doing much the same, working in partnership with Amazon to develop an ecosystem for connected and autonomous vehicles, be they cars, public transport, or scooters.

And sure enough, the time will come when you stare at your decimated bank balance, wonder where on earth things went wrong, and realize that those canny car companies have managed to extract a mountain of money from you, every month, for years. And when all is said and done, you won’t really own any of what you’ve paid for.

Happily, none of this can be applied to old cars. Which, in one sense, will make our classics all the more desirable and our hobby all the more healthy. Enough to survive, with any luck. So, er, long live the subscription economy?




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    I have been cutting back or not participating with any product that is a subscription. My Sat TV is about it.

    Since I now work from home my truck racks up few miles and I will ride it out if they want to charge me for what I have now.

    As for the no hands driving. I love to drive so I have no interest.

    I don’t pay for apps I skip Al, this nonsense.

    If I can buy options up front for the life of the car I will load up but if it has a month or yearly cost sorry no thanks.

    I never even signed up for On Star when it was free.

    Old cars that are entirely electro mechanical (points) may be the only transportation in case of EMP. And those may not work either….

    This is the excuse for me not going to Pertronix on the 72 Skylark! I had a hell of a time finding a new dwell meter a few years ago.

    Except for electric power, natgas, internet service and garbage collection, I have NO subscriptions .. and I won’t in future, either.

    As time had gone on, it has amazed me how easily people give up freedom, and how little concern they have about it. I resisted fuel injection for years because I saw something like this coming where you have little or no control over this expensive piece of machinery that you allegedly own. It took a little longer than I expected… but here it is, and nobody really cares. George Orwell figured the government would be behind something like this, but it was the commercial world, and largely with our consent

    Driver’s club should be 100% opposed to this.

    It’s not good for drivers down the line. Vehicle manufacture and sales is heavily regulated… no reason to not outlaw subscriptions for vehicles*.

    *with the exception of satellite radio, which is an unnecessary premium feature. But… if the car doesn’t support AM/FM then satellite should be free.

    If you can’t afford a classic car (because of all your other non-car subscriptions), buy a used bike on Craigslist and go for a bike ride. It’s still a very analog experience to ride a non-e bike and just go explore roads/trails/whatever. Just don’t get hit by a modern car where the driver is focused on all their subscriptions instead of the road…

    Right, y’are, Andrew. I put more miles on my half-century-old 10-speed English racing bike, as that once ubiquitous style then known, than my manual shift two-door Civic, which I drive only when raining or serious shopping, and we don’t go in my gal’s slick little Miata.

    The nicer your ancient collector car is, the less willing you are to expose it to the capricious behavior of the e- and gadget-addled “drivers” on today’s roads. So my 77-year-old survivor driven only occasionally; better a little cognac now and then than daily beer (not that either should be touched behind the wheel).

    I will do no subscription stuff for my car, including remote start. I don’t need it. Everyone looking to extract a few bucks or more a month for “features” I do not need or want. I am not their atm machine.

    Bought a Mercedes which had Sirius radio in it. Five years later I am STILL getting bombarded to subscribe to their noise. Told them I was interested in classical music. “Oh we have the classics, the music from the 50s and 60s!” I said no, the classics I am interested are from the *seventeen* 50s . . . now stop bothering me. No subscriptions here, either, internet is no contract, phone is no contract, I have NEVER seen ANYTHING that was a “better deal for me” that has a contract or subscription.

    Hilarious but sadly true. LA for awhile had not one classical music station. The Bay Area has but one, and much of that classic lite, the usual snippets of Mozart, rarely a complete symphony, the better for ADD listeners.

    But then, look what passes for car culture today: automatic transmissioned, PS/PB “muscle” cars, retro rods aka Frankencars, painted like circus wagons, steered by members of the UCCA; Used Car Club of America.

    Being an autoholic, i leave the radio off regardless what car i’m driving, enjoy the act, the focus itself.

    I bought a used BMW that had Sirius, and they must have figured it out. They bombarded me with junk mail and even started calling. They told me they had turned my Sirius on for free for the last six months and asked me how I liked it. I told them I was not even aware as I listen to my music off of my thumb drive. It took another 6 months before they gave up the hunt

    My daily driver is a 2000 Buick LeSabre and my fun car is a 1977 MGB. Don’t nobody know nothing ’bout me.

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