BMW’s new curved iDrive display is a ‘major step’ toward autonomous driving

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BMW is pulling the curtain back on its next iteration of iDrive, the software and infotainment platform that has served as the centerpiece of the automaker’s in-car experience for the last 20 years.

The eighth version of iDrive will mostly live on a new “curved” display that starts behind the steering wheel and extends halfway across the dashboard. This involves merging the 12.3-inch instrument cluster and the central 14.9-inch infotainment screen into a single unit angled toward the driver. The size of the screen will vary, depending on the vehicle, but the screen will have the appearance of “floating,” the automaker said. The new iDrive will make its debut later this year in BMW’s new iX electric SUV, as well as the BMW i4 electric sedan.

The brain of this car will also be a significant improvement over past models, BMW says. The onboard computer will be able to process 20 to 30 times the data volume of previous models, or around double the amount of data that was previously possible. This will enable a greater fusion of the vehicle’s sensors, which will help enable higher levels of autonomous driving.

According to BMW chief technology officer Frank Weber, iDrive is a “major step” toward fully autonomous vehicles. He explained that iDrive is designed to support both Level 2 and Level 3 autonomous driving systems.

“It is not an evolutionary step from what we had in the [previous] generation,” Weber said. “It’s an all new, all new system when it comes to sensors, computing, [and] the way it was developed.”

Advanced driver assistance systems, defined as Level 2 by the Society of Automotive Engineers, include lane keeping, blind-spot detection, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control. Most major automakers include some version of advanced driver assistance in their vehicles today. Level 3 refers to highly automated driving, also called conditional automation, where the driver still needs to be able to take over the vehicle upon request.

Other automakers have been tripped up by the promise of Level 3 driving. Audi, for example, said its A8 sedan would come with a feature called Traffic Jam Pilot that, when active, would relieve human drivers of the need to pay attention during stop-and-go traffic. But the feature was contingent on approval from local authorities, and Traffic Jam Pilot remains dormant in most markets around the world. Audi has no plans to activate the feature, and Level 3 automation remains a morass of legal, regulatory, and business-related challenges.

Weber wouldn’t say when BMW would introduce Level 3 automation and hinted it was conditional on racking up more test miles in vehicles equipped with the new version of iDrive.

“Nobody currently can offer at start of production Level 3 capabilities, because you need so many test miles,” he said. “And so you need a production vehicle, and then you run all your validation tests for Level 3.”

iDrive can be controlled with touch, voice activation, or gesture control. There are three main layouts: Drive, in which drivers can use a “dynamically changing area in the center of the information display to show individually selectable information”; Focus, “designed for extremely dynamic driving situations”; and Gallery, which minimizes the driving content “to clear as much space as possible for widget content.”

There is a theme of personalization that runs through the automaker’s new software update. BMW’s Personal Intelligent Assistant, built on top of Microsoft’s Azure cloud system, will “adjust to the driver’s individual needs and routines,” the company says, making it “a central operating channel of human-machine interaction.”

The virtual assistant, which has been available in BMW’s cars for a number of years, will play the role of a “digital character which can engage in natural dialogue with the driver and front passenger – similarly to a relationship between humans.” Expect some similarities to Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX system or Volvo’s Android-powered Google Assistant.

Using ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, iDrive will be able to load a driver’s personal settings as soon as they start approaching the vehicle by sensing their key fob or smartphone. BMW describes this as a “great entrance moment,” which includes geometric projections, lighted door handles, and other lighting effects.

There will be three driving modes: sport, personal, and efficient. These control driving functions like engine throttle, steering characteristics, regenerative braking, and chassis settings, as well as internal and external sounds. New modes may be added via over-the-air software updates in the future.

Information about navigation, parking, and EV charging will be fully integrated into iDrive. BMW extends its theme of personalization to its mapping capabilities with a new feature called “learning navigation,” in which the vehicle will learn and anticipate the destination the driver is likely to head for next, based on the driver’s personal ID. This is meant to be a time saver, as well as a way to identify possible road hazards that may delay the journey.

iDrive will support both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto wirelessly, the company said. For several years, BMW had the dubious distinction of being one of the few automakers to charge its customers an annual fee to mirror their smartphone’s display on their car’s infotainment screen. BMW reversed that decision in 2019, and since then offers both CarPlay and Android Auto to its customers for free.

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