BMW’s new iDrive turns its cars into reactive smart devices

Derryn Wong

More than a smartphone-on-wheels concept, BMW’s new infotainment is voice- and graphics-centric, with a focus on personalisation and adaptability


Here is BMW’s new iDrive system, which the German luxury brand claims will be able to adapt to your needs and provide one of the most useful, intuitive human-machine interfaces to date – oh and you’ll also bond with your car as a result.

It will achieve all these things through the ability to process huge amounts of data, a 5G connection (nevermind that Singapore still hasn’t rolled one out), new-gen computing tech, displays, and a renewed focus on speech control.

New iDrive for a new breed of BMWs

The new system will debut on BMW’s flagship battery electric vehicle, the iX, which is due in Singapore in late 2021/early 2022, followed by the i4 BEV sedan.

Coincidentally, this is the 20th anniversary of iDrive, with the first iteration of BMW’s controller-driven infotainment system appearing in 2001 on the BMW E38 7 Series. 

The original iDrive system of 2001 – came with a very thick manual.

BMW has not revealed processor or GPU specs behind the new system, but it does say that a ‘highly centralised architecture…with a handful of high-performance central computers’ and more than 40 sensors with over 30 antennae, are part of the new tech platform.

The BMW iX has a totally new platform with much-improved networking and data-processing capabilities

It says the onboard network uses gigabit ethernet standards, and can handle up to 30gbps, 10 to 20 times more than before. The car’s also capable of 5G mobile broadband. What’s all that data for? Autonomous functions and driving demands processing lots of data quickly, for one. From the iX onward, BMW’s will be capable of autonomous driving. BMW says its new system will be even quicker with remote updates, and it can even execute ‘extremely complex and large software updates in areas such as driving assistance and partial automation.’ 

You won’t have any trouble identifying cars which carry the new iDrive system and software (BMW OS 8) as it will have huge widescreen displays and a new rotary controller system. Like other luxury carmakers, the focus is toward touchscreens and away from buttons – BMW says it halved the number of buttons in the cockpit. 

However the new iDrive controller is still there – phew – and in the iX it will be made of glass with a bronze bezel underneath, set against a wood panel. BMW says it drew inspiration from luxury furniture here.

More on display – and on ear

As previewed on the iX, there’s a new Curved Display with a very wide 14.9-inch central screen that actually flows into the 12.3-inch driver’s information display. BMW says the main displays have been designed with non-reflective glass (thank goodness) and boasts a display density of 200ppi. The current iPad Pro has 264 ppi, in comparison, so it should be quite sharp. For drivers, there’s also a new head-up display – you can’t see any dashboard bulge because it’s been integrated flush. 

The 12.3-inch driver’s display has three themes – Drive, Gallery, and Focus. Drive has a dynamic central section for info, while Focus is for focusing on driving (strangely), with larger dials and needles, while Gallery minimises driving data and pushes up widgets of your choice instead. There’s also a minimalist display choice for all three – Calm, which erases everything except the speedo. 

BMW’s new OS 8 uses its increased processing power to focus on graphics and intuitive layouts with widgets, swipe menus and more – much like a tablet or smartphone, but the evolution here is one you can hear and see: Voice control through BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant. There are more animations to communicate what it’s doing non-verbally, and it can even appear in the right hand side of the main screen – that’s fine as long as it doesn’t evolve into Clippy.

The system now draws on more data from the car to allow it more context-appropriate actions. BMW does not provide examples, but we guess it could be something as simple and useful as saying less when driving in busy areas. It can also do more now, from opening windows and roof shades, switching driving modes, and give you more detail on maintenance and such. 

BMW’s current OS 7 is already a very powerful tool for making your life easier

Making an entrance 

One new addition to iDrive is what BMW terms ‘Great Entrance Moments’, and it basically takes modern car ‘wake up’ sequences to the next level. The iX will be able to detect when you’re approaching the car thanks to ultra-wideband radio in the car pinpointing your key/smartphone. Under three metres away, the car will activate its exterior lights in a gradual swell, a welcome light on the ground near the doors, then the cabin lights as well. Under 1.5-metres, the vehicle unlocks, mirrors extend, and the BMW welcome animation plays on the displays. 

Something about me

The three My Modes can be seen on the main display

Driving modes, previously BMW Experience Control, now becomes ‘My Modes’ – simply ‘Efficient, Sport, Personal’ and become more all-encompassing. In an evolution of the current systems, each mode has context-specific changes. Efficiency mode, for instance, changes the ambient lighting to blue, engine/motor noise is quietened, and the dual displays change theme too.

More personalisation comes through an updated navigation system onboard. BMW’s nav system with traffic info and routing is already one of the best, but the new iDrive will see it able to learn your regular routes and provide relevant info automatically, sending it to your phone via app. It’ll also apparently find ‘probable’ parking lots and charging locations. 

Lastly, the new iDrive system might also mean never having to turn the AC knob ever again:  BMW claims industry-leading performance for climate control thanks to technology – and well, the AC will now be controlled via the touchscreen. The system takes into account your saved preferences (through voice or profile) first, and works off a base of 440 million BMW owner journeys globally, factoring in what the car can do (seat heating, cool, heated wheel etc) against things such as number of occupants, direction and intensity of sunlight, and more. And if you do need to manually adjust anything, you can ask IPA to do it for you.


bmw iDrive infotainment interface

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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