from the send-out-your-kid dept.
Automakers keep trying to get a piece of that sweet, sweet subscription income. Now, it's Toyota's turn.
Nearly every car company offers some sort of subscription package, and Toyota has one called Remote Connect. The service offers the usual fare, letting owners use an app to remotely lock their doors, for example, or if they own a plug-in vehicle, to precondition the interior. But as some complimentary subscriptions for Remote Connect come to an end, Toyota owners are getting an unexpected surprise—they can no longer use their key fob to remote-start their vehicles.
In terms of technology, this remote-start feature is no different from using the fob to unlock the car. The fobs use a short-range radio transmitter to send the car a signal that is encrypted with rolling codes. The car then decrypts the signal and performs the requested action, whether it's to lock or unlock the doors, beep the horn, or start the engine. RF key fobs have been around since the 1980s, and GM added a factory-installed remote-start option in 2004 (no subscription needed).
Key fob remote start has nothing to do with an app, nor does the car or the fob communicate with any servers managed by Toyota.
Toyota has been offering factory-installed remote start on 2018 and newer vehicles equipped with Audio Plus or Premium Audio. To use it, owners have to be within 50 feet of the vehicle and double-press the fob's lock button before holding the lock button down for a few seconds.
Yet recently, as 2018 Toyotas have passed their third birthday, owners have been discovering that the fob's functionality is dependent on maintaining an active Remote Connect subscription. Vehicles equipped with Audio Plus receive a free three-year "trial," while Premium Audio vehicles receive 10 years. Once those subscriptions expire, though, the key fob remote start stops working. Toyota didn't change the rules, though that detail was buried in the fine print. When the time comes, Toyota simply cuts off access to one of the functions on the key fob already in the owner's possession. To get the feature back, owners have to pony up $8 per month or $80 per year.
Earlier this month, we broke a story about Toyota locking its key fob remote start function behind a monthly subscription. If owners of certain models aren't actively enrolled in a larger Toyota connected services plan, the proximity remote start function on the fob—that is, when you press the lock button three times to start the car while outside of it—will not work even though it sends the signal directly to the car. Obviously, this sent people into a frenzy whether they own a Toyota or not, because it was seen as a dark harbinger of the perils of fully-connected cars. Automakers now have the ability to nickel and dime people to death by charging ongoing subscription fees for functions that used to be a one-and-done purchase, and it looked like Toyota was hopping on the bandwagon.
At the time, Toyota declined to give us a detailed answer on why it chose to take a feature that doesn't need an internet connection to function and moved it behind a paywall. Today, we've got answers. Toyota now claims it never intended to market the key fob remote start as a real feature, and it also says the subscription requirement was an inadvertent result of a relatively small technical decision related to the way its new vehicles are architectured. Finally, Toyota has heard the outrage over the last week—a spokesperson told us the company was caught off guard by the blowback—and its executive team is currently examining whether it's possible to reverse course and drop the subscription requirement for key fob remote start.