Company Car Today

Digital technology is rapidly becoming a new area of innovation for car makers that continue to push the envelope with what is possible.

One innovation is remote, over-the-air upgrades, where drivers can pay for certain functions to be switched on. VW recently announced plans to accelerate a new revenue stream of post-purchase additions. “The vehicle will have virtually everything on-board and customers can add desired functions on demand at any time using the digital ecosystem of the vehicle,” said the company’s statement.

Porsche already offers a monthly £18 subscription for Taycan owners to activate the lane-keeping-assistance functionality along with the InnoDrive tool that “individually adapts the vehicle speed to the conditions ahead”. Tesla, also, offers various upgrades, as does BMW on the connectivity side in particular.

However, company car drivers being able to optionally add extras to their vehicle during their ownership period poses some tricky questions for fleet managers.

Paul Hollick, chairman of the Association of Fleet Professionals likened the availability of such functions to that of a Netflix subscription if there is a perceived value to be gained.

He told Company Car Today: “People will pay for extra things if there is value, but people won’t pay if they think they are getting ripped off in the process.”

He was critical of manufacturers, in effect, forcing drivers to pay extra for safety systems that are already fitted to the car from the outset.

“If it is already available on the vehicle and it doesn’t cost the OEM anything to switch it on, why aren’t they making it free? If there is additional kit to be added on to the vehicle, people are prepared to pay for it – such as bigger alloys or cameras all around the car. People recognise that those things need to be built in and that incurs an additional cost. But if those items are already in the vehicle and they just need to be switched on, that’s where it gets highly emotive.”

Hollick continued: “Imagine a driver has a significant accident because they don’t have some of the safety options available because they haven’t ticked the right box, but it is a standard feature. That doesn’t sound morally right, and there’s a black mark to the OEM in my book,” he added. He also issued a warning to fleet managers: “Fleet operators need to be aware of the additional functionalities you can get when you’re selecting vehicles to go on the choice list, and they must make sure they are supportive and aware of what the driver may or may not want to upgrade. Ideally, the fleet would be aware of what the driver subscribes to.”

Peter Golding, managing director at fleet software company Fleet Check, echoed Hollick’s remarks and warned the ability for drivers to add performance upgrades without the employer knowing could be dangerous. He told Company Car Today: “Is it ethical to build a car with safety devices included and then leave them disabled in a fleet vehicle? If there are performance upgrades, should they be accessible by company car drivers who have poor safety records, something which has both risk management and insurance implications.”

The view that the fleet manager should be aware of the upgrades drivers are paying for is shared by the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. Director of corporate affairs Toby Poston told CCT: “As a rule, company car drivers should always keep their fleet manager and rental or leasing company informed about plans to adjust the performance or functionality of the vehicle they are hiring.”

However, he called on the manufacturers to openly supply the relevant data, rather than being reliant on drivers being honest about short-term options they are installing. He said: “The automotive industry is rapidly embracing digital tech and the BVRLA is calling for a fair and competitive digital ecosystem where its members have the access they need and own the relationships with their customers. The leasing and rental sector continues to develop new bespoke mobility solutions for its clients, but maintaining this innovation will rely on access to in-vehicle data and systems.”

One potential improvement to be borne from the switch to features being added over the air rather than physically could be a reduction in the number of trim levels manufactures offer. It’s something Philip Nothard, insight and strategy director at Cox Automotive and chairman of the Vehicle Remarketing Association, welcomed. “In terms of valuations, you’ll have fewer models and fewer specifications, so the vehicle becomes more standardised. There have been cases in the past where cars have so many trim levels and options that it complicated the used vehicle marketplace as you need someone to track the options and identify them before they go to auction,” he told CCT.

“In the future with remote connectivity, it’ll be irrelevant if a car has a media pack or not because the media is part of a subscription, so the valuation should become more stable as cars become more standard with the options based on connected upgrades.”

Daniel Puddicombe