BMW has new all-electric models on the horizon — the iX and i4 — so naturally the company has a new infotainment system interface to go along with them. But if you’re used to iDrive in its modern incarnation, the experience of rotating dials and poking at screens figures to be quite different with the new iDrive system.
The German automaker revealed a wealth of information about the eighth-generation iDrive interface today. And while I’m sure some buyers couldn’t care less what software is behind the screens in their cars, a thoughtfully organized infotainment system is important, particularly because cars are getting more complicated all the time. And boy, these are some complicated Bimmers.
The first thing you notice about the new iDrive layout is the wide curved screen. There are actually two separate panels beneath the glass — a 12.3-inch “information” display and a 14.9-inch “control” display serving as the instrument and infotainment panels, respectively. This long slab may look obnoxious to some, but having seen panels that literally reach from pillar to pillar of the dashboard — like Byton’s concept, if indeed Byton is still planning to release cars at this point — BMW’s approach seems rather restrained by 2021 standards.
As you’d expect, you’re free to rearrange the layouts of both screens however you like. To that end, the new iDrive offers three configurations — Drive, Focus and Gallery — aiming to satisfy three different mindsets behind the wheel. Unfortunately, the descriptions for each one in the press release are so vague, I’ve read the following paragraph several times and I still feel barely any closer to understanding how they all differ:
In the Drive layout, drivers can use a dynamically changing area in the centre of the information display to show individually selectable information. The Focus layout, meanwhile, has been designed for extremely dynamic driving situations. By contrast, the Gallery layout largely minimises the driving information view to clear as much space as possible for widget content.
To its credit, BMW does expand upon the purpose of the Gallery interface — it devotes more real estate to things like currently playing media, advanced driver-assist systems and navigation, I imagine at the expense of traditional concerns like speed, mileage and range. Which perhaps gives you an idea of what BMW expects you to look at inside the cabin if and when the iX and i4 reach Level 3 autonomy.
But for all of iDrive’s slick animations and big displays, what intrigues me most about it is that BMW doesn’t really expect people to touch them — at least, not as much as you’d think. Yes, there’s still the signature iDrive dial where you’d expect to find it, although now it’s a crystal puck, rather than plastic and metal. Next to that dial are some capacitive keys not delineated or distinguished in any way by texture, with tiny, tiny labels, that seem profoundly annoying. BMW actually says that the new iDrive system has let it reduce the number of physical buttons in the interior by 50 percent — a statement that will surely frustrate those of us who’d rather not take our eyes off the road.
On the flip side, BMW has built up its digital assistant’s quantity and complexity of voice commands, such that it expects drivers and passengers to control the car’s climate systems primarily through speech. That is, if they need to say anything at all, because climate preferences are “registered by the system and stored in the user profile for the BMW ID so that users do not have to keep making the same adjustments.” If the car does get it wrong, though, you can make a statement as simple as “my feet are cold,” and it’ll supposedly start blowing warm air at your feet.
Behind the scenes, BMW says iDrive takes into account a variety of factors in automatically regulating conditions inside the car, including “the number of occupants, where they are sitting” and even “the intensity and direction of the sunlight.” When you’re not inside the car, iDrive relies on ultra-wideband chips — like the latest iPhones have — in the vehicle and the key to know when you’re approaching, as well as from what direction. It’ll use this information to light up the door handle, then gradually the interior.
Typing all this out, it can’t help but feel a bit silly. Technology has encroached on so many aspects of the traditional driving experience in the name of convenience and luxury, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to bossing my car around like the robotic servant it apparently has become.
I can’t say whether any of iDrive’s clever new features will be beneficial or pointless without having used them, or knowing if BMW’s executed everything as well as it says it has. But I do appreciate the attitude to make iDrive more intuitive but also more subtle, rather than obnoxious and thirsty for attention. I’d feel much more comfortable behind the wheel of a car that can accurately respond to verbal requests, as opposed to a car that buries everything behind a dizzying barrage of screens. Truly smart software adapts to its users — it shouldn’t force us to sacrifice our own safety or sanity to adapt to it.