BMW ConnectedDrive: Infotech Highway

Derryn Wong

SINGAPORE – You can’t escape, it’s in your face everyday and it’s taking over the minds of your children. I’m talking about the Internet and the increasing connectivity of the world, something that’s spilling over into the automotive industry too.

Apple and Google have both announced their in-car integration systems – we’ve had a sampler of both of them already, testing our Apple Car Play and Android Auto respectively.

So you can imagine BMW’s pride at being the first carmaker here in Singapore to unveil its own host of connectivity technologies nobody else does, and it’s naturally slapped an awesomely confusing term to describe all of it: ConnectedDrive.

But what is it ConnectedDrive, exactly?

BMW ConnectedDrive*

BMW Online (In Vehicle Apps) BMW Smartphone Apps ConnectedDrive Options
News, Weather, Online Search, Office BMW RemoteService, compatible apps like Spotify, Deezer, GoPro Emergency call, RTTI, Concierge, Remote Services, TeleServices

* BMW considers driver assistance systems as part of CD, so things like a rear view camera or adaptive cruise control and even smart LED headlights come under the umbrella. For the purpose of this story, we are leaving out those features in our discussion of CD, and this will continue until real autonomous driving systems arrive and are truly connected to the environment.

BMW explains it as: “…the epitome of intelligent networking of driver, vehicle and environment….the product portfolio includes numerous innovative features which considerably raise the level of convenience during the journey, allow infotainment to be experienced in a whole new dimension and significantly increase the level of safety for people both inside BMW automobiles and for those in the vicinity.”

We didn’t understand that either, so don’t worry. Having tested the system equipped in a BMW 528i for a weekend and explored all of its nooks and crannies, we would sum up ConnectedDrive in simple terms as: Pairing a smartphone with an automobile on a more fundamental level than simple Bluetooth. ConnectedDrive works off an internal sim-card that comes with the car itself, and currently the feature is available on all BMW models except for the Z4 and x1 xDrive20i.

But everyone’s got a smartphone and an internet connection nowadays, it’s the equivalent of having a powerful desktop computer and internet access in your pocket. For that same reason we all use Whatsapp to chat to each other instead of going home to check desk-bound, now defunct Windows Messenger and ICQ.

So the big question is, can ConnectedDrive (CD) add enough value and usefulness to warrant its existence over and above the ubiquitous smartphone?

To find out, we decided to test each aspect of CD and highlight the most useful, or opposite, features.

Feature: BMW Online’s On-Board Apps
Usefulness: Varies

The apps in this case refer to embedded ones that you access via iDrive itself. The weather app is fairly accurate, and you can even display it on the main iDrive  ‘home page’ via split screen. The online search function is good for trawling Google (Audi’s MMI has a similar feature), but it limits itself to locations only, which means no reading wiki-trivia while waiting at the lights for example. There’s also a news app which trawls RSS feeds (AFP is default, but you can set your own) and even reads the stories to you while on the move. Nifty features, but nothing life changing here.

Feature: BMW Apps
Usefulness: YMMV

Here’s a bit more confusion: The apps here refer to BMW’s own ‘ConnectedDrive’ approved apps, which include audio apps Deezer, InTune Radio and Stitcher, stories from the Snippy app. You can see a full list online at BMW’s website. There are also ‘BMW Apps Ready Applications’ like Spotify. Your mileage may vary obviously, if you use any of these apps already then there’s more utility here, but we tested only Spotify as it’s one of the more popular music apps now. While the screens on both the phone and iDrive were in sync, music wasn’t very forthcoming. It’s not the fault of the system though, as for streaming services like this, Connected Drive makes use of the paired smartphone’s data plan rather than its own SIM.

Feature: Real Time Traffic Information
Usefulness: Very

Unlike other countries, road traffic information for Singapore isn’t commonly implemented here although the international standard Traffic Message Channel is available. Still, the Real Time Traffic Information system used here is very useful indeed. It uses data from a service provider (eg. TomTom) and displays it in a system of green to red lines to represent traffic flow, while incidents and blockages or road works also appear. It’ll notify you of major incidents in your path of travel but you have to input navigation guidance to get the most out of it.

Feature: Intelligent Emergency Call
Usefulness: Very

There have been cases where people have driven off the road by accident and died without being found until weeks later. Sure, that’s not possible in Singapore unless you try really really hard, but still, it highlights one of the most useful features, the Intelligent Emergency Call. If it detects you’ve been in a serious accident (airbags deployed) it automatically contacts emergency services for you. You can also deploy it manually with a purposeful-looking button. It’s quite impressive, since it can supply the model of car, colour, last known position and registered name, and it might one day save your life. Like all of the on-board services done through the CD sim-card, it also works abroad, so if you drive to another country you’re still covered.

Feature: Concierge Services
Usefulness: Moderate

One of the ‘hero’ features of ConnectedDrive is the Concierge Service, which gives you a real, live human to talk to, ask questions and generally weird the heck out of if you so wish. Southeast Asia’s call centre is located in the Philippines, so you’ll have to speak English and really context specific stuff may not work (“I need to find black carrot cake now do you understand?!? No it’s not sweet!”). But we decided to ask the concierge to find us the BMI of a guy who’s 170cm and 95kg (The answer was, “Overweight.” Cue lots of laughter in the car.) and then to send us to the nearest McDonalds. It took the very professional lady awhile, but she even sent the whole calculations to the car’s inbox along with an address for a nearby gym. There’s obviously a limit to what concierges can do, but they specialise in practical information, so they can find a place for you and
input it directly into the navigation guidance, or even grab you a hotel and help check flight
details. All things you could ask your Significant Other to do, but with far fewer alternative suggestions and protests.

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Feature: Remote Services
Usefulness: Moderate

Again, rather confusingly, Remote Services is controlled by an app (iPhone or Android) but not considered an ‘app’ per se. Like the i3 we drove last year, you can use your phone to control various functions of the car. Lost your machine in a parking lot? Use the app to honk the horn or flash the lights. It also comes in handy to know if you remembered to lock the car door. Another convenient feature is remote ventilation – you can run the blower (though not the AC, like on an i3) to make the car less of a tandoor oven on a hot day. Generally, everything works as advertised, although sometimes server errors and delays mean it’s a few minutes before things actually happen.

So as we’ve seen overall, ConnectedDrive works pretty well thus far. It can, in the most extreme case, possibly save your life. But in making the day-to-day grind a little less grindy, well, we think the key benefit is that it frees up your hands to do more driving, and also adds a little bit more convenience when you’re not in the car too. Frankly for a place like Singapore without soul-sucking, I-missed-my-kids-growing-up-type traffic jams, it’s useful but not life changing.

None of it is earth-shaking stuff, but keep in mind that CD, seemingly a new a concept as it is, didn’t spring from out of nowhere.

We’re all very familiar with BMW’s iDrive infotainment system. It’s been around for more than 15 years and predates the iPhone by six years in fact. It’s followed the same progress as ‘normal’ computers have, going from impossibly cryptic to its slick, modern ‘no manual needed’ iteration with voice and handwriting recognition. Now just imagine that, connected to a modem (and a live concierge service, which also was available to 7 Series owners before this) and more, and that’s exactly what ConnectedDrive is trying to do.


About the Author

Derryn Wong

CarBuyer's chief editor brings 15 years of experience in automotive journalism. Previously, he was the editor for Top Gear Singapore, and a presenter for CNA's Cruise Control motoring segment. He's contributed to The Business Times, Today, and many other publications, and also covered technology as editor of Stuff magazine. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he is the Chief Slave of two cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong

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