SAN FRANCISCO -- Smartphone and PC users know the frustration of downloading software and seeing the words: "Your device is no longer supported."
Soon drivers could see that message in $30,000 cars.
Each year, more vehicles are sold with technology that connects them to the cloud, enabling drivers to unlock their doors from hundreds of miles away, call for an ambulance or download new software. In an era of over-the-air software updates, automakers will happily add features.
But what happens when they take those features away?
General Motors, a pioneer in telematics with its OnStar service, is being forced to cut service to many vehicles in Canada because the country's cellular service providers are deactivating their outdated 2G networks. Vehicles sold with OnStar before the 2015 model year rely on 2G; they will need a new wireless chip to access the service.
"Thank you for understanding as we make this transition," GM said in a recent notice on OnStar's Canadian website. The automaker said it will pay for new hardware for customers still in the trial period or a five-year basic plan, but others will need to buy a one-year subscription to get the upgrade. (OnStar starts at $19.99 a month after a trial period.)
Hyundai Motor Co., with its Blue Link service, was sued in February in federal court in California after warning customers that it would deactivate cellular transmitters in vehicles that weren't using the service. The plaintiffs argue that by closing the dormant accounts and charging $500 to reactivate them, Hyundai hurt the resale value of their vehicles.
"Connectivity is a huge selling point," said David Wright, a Redlands, Calif., lawyer representing Hyundai owners in the case.
"To buy a car and then have it disabled, whether or not that customer found utility in the service, affects the value of the car."
For car buyers, obsolescence has been an understood risk. Customers expect that an eight-track player or cassette deck might lose its utility over time because of changing habits or technology.
But even then, a cassette player could still play cassettes.
In the connected-car era, consumers will have to confront the prospect that certain functions of their vehicle could be disabled in an instant, and by the automaker itself. The Hyundai lawsuit underscores how that power can open new avenues for disputes with customers.
Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., said automakers eventually may be bound by legislation specifying how long they must support connected-car services.
An early model can be seen in the European Union, where a mandate taking effect in 2018 will require all vehicles sold in Europe to have a built-in wireless connection for emergency calls.
"It's not feasible for any business to support their products over a long time frame, but there's also opportunity," Koslowski said. "If [automakers] can charge consumers for hardware and software upgrades from time to time, it's a different story."
Over-the-air software updates, as practiced by Tesla Motors Inc., likely will force automakers to make a careful transition from one generation of product to the next. Tesla designed its Model S sedan to be "a very sophisticated computer on wheels," CEO Elon Musk told reporters in March, as the company unveiled an update that enables the Model S to communicate with Tesla's charging stations.
But just as Apple Inc.'s original iPad cannot run the latest version of the iOS operating system, a Model S sedan sold in 2013 may someday lack enough processing power to run the latest software written by Tesla's engineers.
Companies such as Tesla and Ford Motor Co., which plans to distribute updates to its new Sync 3 infotainment system wirelessly, will need to clearly communicate to customers how long they can expect their vehicles' software to stay fresh and what will happen once it is obsolete.
Ford plans to keep updating Sync 3 for an extended period, but not forever, Don Butler, executive director of connected vehicles and services at Ford, said in a recent interview.
"There will be a physical limit in what we're able to do," Butler said. "But there's nothing on our near-term horizon that seems to be a limit."