The latest generation of BMW’s iDrive system is a giant leap forward for the advancement of human to machine interface, yet it leaves a lot of valid questions well and truly unanswered.
When it comes to core in-car technology – the hardware and software that drives the multimedia and information systems, better known as infotainment systems – there are really only three players making a big effort on a continual basis. That is, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW.
In recent years, Mazda with its MZD system, (an iDrive clone in reality) has progressed in leaps and bounds and shamed the likes of premium competitors such as Lexus – which seems stuck in circa 2005 - but let us focus on the big three.
Mercedes-Benz has 'COMAND', Audi has 'Audi Connect' and BMW has 'iDrive'. In many ways, iDrive started the real battle in terms of providing a real and advanced infotainment system back in 2002, with the heavily criticised and relatively annoying first-generation system, which like version five now, debuted on the 7-Series at the time.
The biggest change to iDrive 5.0, apart from the addition of gesture controls -which we will get to later - is the addition of a touchscreen. This ‘new’ addition may seem already out of date to those who have not used iDrive before, but the system has – except for a brief period at the start - been against allowing touch, for BMW insisted that a rotary dial, shortcut buttons and the ability to handwrite characters on a little panel atop the rotary dial is all you need to interact with the car and that touching a screen is far more distracting.
BMW may be right, but as the company’s project manager of human machine interface, Stephan Peters, admitted to CarAdvice at the launch of the new BMW 7-Series in New York this week, BMW had to respond to customers that are now part of the touch-generation. “You know, we need to follow customers demand.” Peters told CarAdvice. “They told us they want to have it in the car and we said ‘ok, we will follow your requirements and we will do this in a car and offer touch’.”
The addition of being able to touch the screen has taken no functionality away from the rotary dial, which means there are now two completely redundant methods for performing the same task.
Add in voice control, gesture control and the ability to remotely upload a destination in to the car’s navigation system and that makes five different methods of interacting with iDrive 5.0.
However, touch requirements have largely stemmed from customers wanting a quicker and more familiar way to input data while the car is stationary. “What we figured out was that with touch interaction, they loved to use it when the car is stationary. Like using the map.
"We stayed with the iDrive controller and we have the system like you know from the current models and we introduced touch in a way that is 100% redundant so you can either control everything by the controller or by touch on the screen. You are not forced to switch from one mode to the other but can switch in between.”
The 12.3-inch screen, now driven by a far faster processor and more memory, is quick to respond and not too far away that you have to stretch to make it work. It does offer some very good reasons for being touchable, for example, it immediately detects your fingers near the screen (using the gesture control 3D mapping camera) and switches the round rotary input keyboard BMW owners would know (and hate) so well to a standard keyboard for finger input. This makes typing no harder than on an iPad – admittedly using just one finger.
Apart from the usual stuff, like being able to browse the web, check emails, messaging, read the news, check the weather etc., iDrive now allows for even more system modifications of things you never knew you wanted to change. Like its fatigue monitoring system that can be switched from standard to sensitive to keep a closer eye on your driving to make sure you’re not falling asleep.
Our favourite feature of the new version of iDrive, however, is its ability to let the driver pick certain locations on the map where the car will be told to automatically turn on its forward, side or reverse cameras.
For example, you can program the 7 Series to automatically turn the front camera on as you get close to your garage, allowing for a far smarter parking experience. Of course, the 7-Series can remotely park itself too, so you can always get out and press a button and watch the car roll into your garage unaided (this system is currently seeking legal approval from the Australian government).
Say you frequent a street that merges onto a busy road that has terrible visibility. You can program the 7 Series to turn on its side cameras as you come close to the stop sign, so each time you’re about to merge in that location, the car turns on its side cameras to give you a far better view of vehicles coming in your direction. All of it seamless and easily programmable.
There’s also a 3D camera mode that, somehow uses four high-resolution cameras to create an almost lifelike construct of the outside of the car, which you can move around and see. So if you don’t know if there’s a kerb close to the wheels, you can get a 3D model of the car’s exterior surroundings. This is science fiction stuff and it’s amazing (albeit slightly frustrating at times) to use.
The real party trick here and the one that will make your friends in an S-Class jealous and rather defensive, is gesture control. Literally using the movement of your hands in the air to talk to the car. See our video demonstration here.
The most basic of these is volume control. Turning a pretend knob in the air clockwise will turn the volume up, turn it down by doing it the other way. You may think it’s a complete gimmick – and in some ways it really is – but the potential of the system is limitless.
Say you get a phone call from someone you don’t want to talk to, you simply have to wave your hand to the right (or left in right hand drive vehicles coming to Australia) and the car ignores the call (pull it towards you and it will accept the call). That’s handy.
You can program a few gesture commands yourself too. For example: point two fingers towards the screen and your BMW can immediately begin navigation back home, or to work. Or it can select your favourite radio station. It can call your wife. Whatever you’ve told it to do, it can do it just by noticing your fingers.
The system works by employing a 3D mapping camera above the centre console that is constantly monitoring hand movements. We found it mostly accurate (except when using the pinch and move in the exterior 3D modelling software). This can be somewhat problematic however, particularly if you’re Italian and talk a lot with your hands as you may find yourself hanging up on a lot of unsuspecting people.
All of this is just at the front. The rear is a whole other system altogether. Move to the back and there is a 7-inch Samsung tablet that runs Google’s Android operating system, skinned by BMW software on top. This little tablet controls almost everything you’d need to control when sitting in the back.
The rear left passenger can listen to his/her own radio station, while the right one can stream from his/her iPhone. With a simple drag and drop, the audio from either can be transferred to the car’s 16-speaker Bowers and Wilkins system (that lights up beautifully at night), or that can run something else entirely. That’s three-zone audio, on top of four-zone climate.
There are heaps of other features too, of course. Such as a wifi hotspot, the ability to move the seats backward and forward using the tablet, or, you can just use the tablet as you would normally, browsing the web while you’ve got your feet up. You can find our video of this here.
Ignoring iDrive for a second, the 7 Series also gets a smart display key which, much like a mini smartphone, displays a hell of a lot of vital statistics about the car’s status. Is it locked? Are the windows up, how much fuel has it got left? All this is available at anytime when you’re carrying the smart key with you. This could’ve easily been done with a smartphone app (which exists for BMW’s i3 and i8 cars), but it wouldn’t have been as … cool.
It’s a bit big and you definitely do not want to pay for a replacement if you lose it, but if putting down your car keys at a dinner table with peers and pretending to care about the status of your 7 Series’ sunroof so that others will notice your key’s display light up means anything to you (it does to an early adopter like myself) then you will absolutely love it. You can find our video of the key here.
Overall though, version 5.0 of BMW’s iDrive system is the best yet and more importantly, it puts Audi and in particular, arch-nemesis Mercedes-Benz, on the backfoot.
It lacks Audi’s great Google Maps overlay feature and it doesn’t flow as nicely inside the 7-Series cabin as Mercedes-Benz’s two giant LCDs in the S-Class, but when it comes to functionality and usability, it’s – once again – the best in the business.
But there are two other players here that will, very shortly if not already, take on the German giants and potentially beat them at their own game - that’s Apple and Google, with CarPlay and Android Auto respectively.
You see, no matter what car companies say or do, they are very good at making cars. Not software. The likes of Google and Apple in particular, have had extensive software making experience and their own ecosystem on smartphones and tablets have given them immeasurable data on which interfaces work and which don’t as well as what people respond to and what they don’t.
Of course, they are new at it for the car, but what most people really want is just their phone’s functionality on a dumb screen in front of them while they are driving. They want to be able to program their phone’s satellite navigation and have the car take the data and project the navigational information. That’s because dealing with a modern smart phone is still much easier than something like iDrive.
Although BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have all stated they will support systems like CarPlay in the future, none have yet properly and completely implemented its support in their cars.
To us, it seems as though there’s a level of fear from premium car companies, that once Google or Apple take over the car’s screen, there will be no going back. That fear is probably very valid, but the third-party software will never be as custom made as BMW’s iDrive. So while it will mimic the phone’s functionality – and do it well - it won’t take over control of the 7 Series’ settings, meaning you’ll have to deal with two separate systems, and that will get annoying.
The solution? There isn’t one yet. What those third-party systems will really do at first is help other car companies that are far behind the eight-ball when it comes to infotainment. The likes of Skoda, who have already adopted Apple CarPlay. But in time, your $30,000 car’s Apple or Google powered infotainment system will be a match for the German’s and then, it will become a problem too hard to avoid. BMW is expected to add CarPlay support in 2016 or 2017.