Checking out the newest BMW iDrive tech

The next-gen infotainment system offers connectivity, smarts and intelligence galore. Here are some of the key features coming to the new BMW iX electric SUV.

BMW iDrive

Image: BMW

Car infotainment systems are, generally speaking, terrible. As a car journalist, I drive a different car every week to review and I've tested most of the in-dash options (you know, the touch screens that control the radio, climate control and the like) and there isn't one that I particularly like.

That's why basically every automaker has adopted Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—those two technologies mirror what you see on your smartphone on your car's in-dash screen and you get the same apps and user interface that you're used to.

Also, Apple and Google are really good at designing user interfaces because they have billions of users between them while the biggest carmakers might sell close to 10 million cars worldwide every year.

SEE: Future of 5G: Projections, rollouts, use cases, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

But just because people like their smartphones better than the tricky-to-use screens in their cars doesn't mean carmakers aren't going to keep working to improve them.

The SYNC 4 system that Ford offers in many of its current vehicles, including the new Ford F-150, is usable and responsive (and supports wireless Apple CarPlay) and the Mercedes-Benz MBUX system is pretty and works well (and supports Apple CarPlay). 

And now BMW is launching a new version of its iDrive system for its next generation of cars that includes some advanced features and an entirely new design. We'll have to take it for a spin down the road to see how the design works, but for now, here's a look at some of the key features in the new iDrive. It will be coming first to the BMW iX SUV later this year.

5G

BMW says the new BMW iX electric SUV will be the "first premium automobile available worldwide" (a weird caveat) to be equipped with 5G cellular connectivity. It's not clear what it'll actually be used for beyond the obvious live maps and traffic, music and infotainment, but BMW says that "vehicle functions requiring a lot of computing power" can be shifted to the cloud. Perhaps it's anticipating data centers powering autonomous tech or something similar, but this is likely a long way off. Still, we've known 5G was coming to automobiles eventually and here it is.

Digital Key Plus

Then there's a new digital key feature that BMW developed in concert with Apple called BMW Digital Key Plus. It combines ultra-wideband UWB tech in the BMW and the iPhone's U1 chip (the same one that the rumored Apple Tags Bluetooth trackers would use) to make your iPhone as reliable as the keyless entry fob you might have in your car today.

The Car Connectivity Consortium announced its digital key spec [https://www.macrumors.com/2018/06/20/apple-car-consortium-digital-car-key/] almost three years ago, and it's finally coming to automobiles. The UWB digital keys built into recent model iPhones will be more secure and reliable than current key fobs too, in addition to convenience features like being to digitally send keys to other people to give them access to your car. The standard key fobs in the iX will be built upon the same UWB technology as well.

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Image: BMW

Over-the-air in-app purchases

BMW has offered a remote, over-the-air software update (which is something Tesla fans always cite as a terrific feature) and the ability to purchase and unlock optional features after the car has been taken home. The "in-app purchase" equivalents include things like automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality when the hardware is already built-in to the car (which is also something that Tesla has offered). But with the new system, BMW will allow customers to purchase some functions outright, like before, or even rent them for a limited period like three years, 12 months or just a single month. This could be useful if you don't want to splurge on an advanced driving feature for the life of the car when you might just be leasing it for a few years.

It remains to be seen if this will be popular, but it's worked really well for app creators so why wouldn't it work in cars? It'll also allow BMW to offer "try-before-you-buy" trial periods for advanced features like semi-autonomous driving, etc, before asking for big chunks of cash for the privilege of using them.

Gigabit Ethernet

The new car will also use a new version of Gigabit Ethernet to network together all the car's systems, allowing for data to flow around the car at up to 30 gigabits per second or 10 to 20 times the speeds in the current-generation BMWs. With dozens of individual sensors mapping the world around the car, these data flows will continue to grow and by adopting automotive Ethernet over the older Controller Area Network bus system, BMW will be able to better future-proof its automobiles. It's also far from the only company to be adopting automotive Ethernet, but it's an intriguing adoption nonetheless. 

Advanced automatic climate control

Finally, I'm particularly interested in the new automated climate control system that's coming in the next version of iDrive. BMW says customers will "seldom need to adjust any of the climate control settings" as its system has been preprogrammed based on an analysis of 440 million customer journeys around the world. The system will regulate fan speed and air distribution, steering wheel and surface heating, and seat heating and ventilation to "ensure optimum levels of thermal comfort." As this is initially designed for an electric vehicle, where passenger climate is a huge battery drain, the system is able to measure where passengers are sitting, the direction and intensity of sunlight, and even how many passengers are in the car.

BMW says there is "no longer any need for manual operation of functions" like seat heating, as the car will be able to determine if your rear end is cold before you do. I'll believe that when I see it, but it's an appealing promise. One of my favorite features in Lexus cars is "Climate Concierge" where the car turns the seat heating and cooling features on and off depending on the passenger climate temperature setting, so I'm excited for this to come to more vehicles. The fewer functions I need to deal with the better!

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