Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
BMW ConnectedDrive. Click image to enlarge

Article by Jonathan Yarkony; photos by Jonathan Yarkony and courtesy BMW

BMW recently invited us to an event to introduce us to the next generation of improvements to ConnectedDrive, their term for in-car connectivity and infotainment interface. The event was held at an airport hangar, with one of Chartright Airlines’ private charter jets also on hand for us to “ooh” and “aaah” over, and to reaffirm the notion that BMW cars are for, well, the jetsetting crowd.

Centre stage was a pre-production 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid7 that will be one of the first models to offer many of the features previewed in this article. First and foremost, the aim of BMW’s ConnectedDrive is to assist the customer with operation while driving, always aiming to decrease the time and attention it takes to execute various tasks like plot a navigation route, play a song, or find a restaurant.

We are still a long way from these systems becoming truly intuitive, so BMW starts every ownership experience with a “delivery specialist” to run down the complex array of features and capabilities, and they aim to have a dedicated ConnectedDrive Specialist (as we had at this event) at every dealership in order to delve into the further complexity of iDrive, BMW Apps, and more.

Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
BMW ConnectedDrive. Click image to enlarge

At every level of the interface, BMW’s system is visually pleasing, and the screens themselves are higher resolution than most you’ll find even in other luxury cars. And yes, I meant screens, plural. The ActiveHybrid7 featured a large centre-mounted screen for driver and front passenger, and two backrest-mounted screens for rear seat residents. Front screens are controlled by the familiar iKnob (BMW doesn’t actually call it that, but it seems apropos) that can be pressed, spun, or pushed to the cardinal points for various menu naviagation. Rear seat passengers share one remote iKnob that mimics the operation of the one in front—a simple switch switches control from left to right. It stands to reason that a second remote could be acquired for multiple VIP passengers.

It should also be note that the quality of image is matched by the quality of design, both in menus and in maps. In menus, BMW iDrive/ConnectedDrive designers who made a presentation online cited Steve Jobs quote that “Design is not what a thing looks like, it’s how a thing works” as the inspiration behind their continued efforts to upgrade and refine its operation. BMW’s commitment to the electronic arts pays dividends, as iDrive has won over many of its initial critics with an ever-simpler and more intuitive menu structure.

Elements of design from art, architecture, and furniture and play of light and shadow on 3D objects to help orient user and offer holistic experience and more intuitive navigation. One example is a curved arc on the main menu screen to the left of the menu items, and scrolling down the list corresponds to the direction in which you must rotate the knob. It may not seem like much, but it is genuinely easier to orient oneself onscreen when the electronic navigation reflects the physical action necessary to make it happen.

Maps, too, are adding more features to make navigation easier and more natural. ConnectedDrive already offers a split-screen mode and recently added 3D renderings of major landmarks and downtown buildings in bird’s-eye-view mode. The secondary screen can provide an alternate map view, trip computer info, or audio settings as set by the user. Real-time traffic info is one of the new features coming on 2013 7 Series and 5 Series, and the navigation will offer better intersection diagrams when approaching key points on the route.

Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
BMW ConnectedDrive. Click image to enlarge

BMW is also working hard to make dialogue flow with voice commands more intuitive and flexible. However, in the immediate future, BMW has harnessed server-based cloud functions to assist with speech recognition in order offer speech-to-text dictation. BMW will be the first automaker to market with such technology, but a correction feature is not yet available. BMW drivers are already able to have their Blackberry messages (sorry iPhone users—not compatible) read to them through BMW “Office” functions, and will now be able to dictate responses.

Ironically, BMW Apps is only compatible with iPhone Apps, although they will also soon be expanding into the Android market. While BMW Apps has been available on BMW cars with iDrive for several years now, the range of available BMW Apps has expanded far beyond Facebook and Twitter thanks to the proliferation of apps and BMW’s release of the a developer’s kit for ConnectedDrive compatibility. The app can then be submitted for approval and certified by BMW Group (much like the process for iPhone/Android apps) and becomes installable in your BMW or Mini.

BMW Apps can make satellite radio subscriptions obsolete through various ‘radio’ apps, offer even greater detail to driving data than a simple trip computer, and even performance driving data. One app that can make a road trip even better is Wiki Local, a site that will give you information on tourist draws in any given area, and in combination with the nav system, will give you a quick list of attractions and information on them in the immediate vicinity.

However, try as I might, I could not connect my Twitter addiction, er, feed while I was in the BMW M5 last week and trying to engage the full range of BMW Apps available. I did read a handful of Facebook updates, but the Wiki Local was by far the most useful and logical of the BMW Apps I tried. BMW highlighted Aupeo radio service, a customizable music service that allows you to create your own ‘station’, but that seemed like too much work to download it when I already have enough of a selection on my iPhone. Another point of contention: your iPhone must be connected by USB, or in an available docking station in order to access the BMW Apps on your phone. No word on when that will become available through a Bluetooth connection.

Auto Tech: BMW ConnectedDrive automotive technology car culture bmw auto tech
BMW ConnectedDrive. Click image to enlarge

Another ‘connected’ feature of the upcoming crop of Bimmers is a mobile hot spot. You can order a SIM card with portable LTE modem (which is the equivalent of 4G speeds) in order to turn your BMW into a mobile hotspot with top-of-the-line data speed. While this sounds cool, it is of somewhat limited use to most owners, who will already have 4G smartphones with which to connect to the internet and download apps. This would be a great feature in a 7 Series limo or executive car service, in which a passenger might want to use their laptop or wifi-only tablet on the go.

The last notable feature BMW demonstrated was the future of the iDrive controller (that so-called ‘iKnob’), which will integrate a touch-sensitive pad in the centre circle that will allow users to ‘draw’ letters, much like with Audi’s current MMI system. The system recognizes elements of letters from the first stroke and narrows down letter choices as you progress through drawing the letter. This feature is already available in the Chinese-market 7 Series, and will be arriving on an undisclosed model sometime in 2013.




About Jonathan Yarkony

Jonathan Yarkony is the Senior Editor for Autos.ca, a Brampton-based automotive writer with eight years of experience evaluating cars and an AJAC member.