Over the last few years, major car manufacturers (and many not-so-major ones) have started putting telematics into their vehicles, such as BMW ConnectedDrive, Audi Connect, Mercedes Telematics, Tesla’s … something, and Jeep’s … something else (no obvious bias here). Essentially, the cars now have a way to communicate, whether via the built-in SIM or bluetooth and your mobile phone, with the internet, and enables a huge range of applications from real-time traffic information, to GPS-assisted SOS, to remote diagnosis, to over-the-air updates for ECUs. I have recently had the pleasure of using BMW’s ConnectedDrive suite of tools in the past few weeks, and this is my opinions of the implementation of the system.
First of all, BMW’s ConnectedDrive is a bit of a mouthful. I suppose they couldn’t have called it BMW CD. However, putting the name aside, ConnectedDrive is actually, surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because all in-car infotainment systems are, in my opinion, crap. I have always held the belief that the car manufacturers should just give up, and sublet the job of designing an usable user interface suited for the cars to the big names, i.e. Google and Apple (like what Mazda, Honda, Ford, Holden, Toyota are doing). The reason behind is specialisation. Skill specialisation makes the market more efficient – basic macroeconomic theory. My experience with cars have proven this. I wouldn’t say I have had enough cars to amount a large enough sample size to be statistically valid, but I’ve driven a fair amount of cars with infotainment systems: Lexus IS250, BMW E60 545i, BMW F20 125i, BMW F20 M140i, Mazda CX-5, Mercedes GLA 180, Audi S3, Vauxhall (Holden) Astra, Mini Cooper S, and of course, my current car. The best experience I’ve had would be in the Holden Astra, and the F series BMWs. Surprising isn’t it. The Holden made the list because … Android Auto, so it’s not really Holden that made the list, it was Google.
So. What didn’t I like about the systems in all the other cars I’ve had? They all had some common characteristics: unergonomic, slow, unnatural, feels like a bolt-on instead of an integrated system, and not enough integration. Operating the infotainment systems is often comparable to operating a multi-function printer. Remember when your company just brought in that brand new Xerox or Konica Minolta and literally nobody apart from the IT people knew how they worked? Then after some struggles and battles, you can then operate it like it was second nature? It was like that. It’s a car, which means people are going to be driving when they operate the infotainment, which means the last thing they should be is complicated or confusing, and yet, most of the in-car infotainment out there are exactly that – complicated and confusing. The other beef I have with the systems is that they aren’t integrated enough. Most of them, dare I say, can be replaced by a Garmin mounted on the windscreen. It’s just not useful enough. Sure GPS is very nice, but you can have that functionality with a phone mounted on the dash. Music is probably played from your phone anyway. This means your phone is actually a more integral part of the car than your car’s infotainment is, and that’s just wrong.
What has BMW done right? It plays on your intuition.
Everything Most things feel natural and intuitive. The knobs do what you think they do. More importantly, it is incredibly useful. It tells me when I should service my car, turn-by-turn navigation with real time traffic information, Google search with Street View and satellite view, album art (although it’s from my phone), playlist scrolling, and it acts like a bridge between my phone and the car itself. I can remotely start ventilation for the car, when it’s really hot outside, or lock/unlock the car (a bit less useful), or use the GPS in the car to locate where it is when I have inadvertently lost it in a supermarket car park. It reads my calendar and can start navigation from my calendar entries, and reads and replies my text messages. It’s spectacular.
In the morning, I can go into the car, fire up the engine, and ConnectedDrive automatically connects to my phone via Bluetooth. I can then check my calendar for the day or have it read out to me while I’m driving. When someone texts me, a little envelope appears on the top of the screen, and I can view the message or have it read out to me (with comedic effects). If the battery is too low, it sends a notification to my phone telling me that I’d been a blithering idiot and forgot to turn off the car after washing it. I can set custom newsfeed to it and have the car read the news for me while I’m driving to work. Best of all is the music though. Without even taking my phone out of my pocket, I can choose between playlists I’ve created and subscribed to, search by album, artist, or title, or go into Audiobooks or Podcasts and play something other than music. I can launch Audible or Spotify if I want to, or launch a lap timer if I’m pretending I’m on the Nurburgring. I can even trigger GoPro start/stop remotely from my car. What’s more, is that it doesn’t feel convoluted. It doesn’t feel like it’s bulging with functionality. It sits there quietly when I just want a nice drive. It’s not intrusive or distracting. Not in my car, but in properly-specced BMWs, it even scans for road signs and tells you what the speed limit is at any given time.
I have recently talked to a friend about Apple CarPlay on BMWs (this is the other thing I love about BMWs, they out-right don’t support Android Auto). I asked him why I pay $380 to “activate” the functionality, and then have to pay $100+ per year to use it while if I buy a Mazda, it comes as standard and I can use it for the rest of my life for free. He raised a very good point – BMW wants people to use their iDrive system because it’s so good. Thinking about it now – in the 2 months I’ve had my car, I have never thought “You know, it would’ve been a lot better if I had Apple CarPlay here”. Not even once. The Apple CarPlay solution becomes a bolt-on, and who wants to use a bolt-on when the original is just as good, if not better than the bolt-on itself?
It doesn’t come cheaply though, as with most things BMW. The remote ventilation/locking/unlocking/GPS function? $89 a year. Concierge service? $199 per year. Online Services? $89 a year. Real time traffic information? $109 a year. Updating your built-in map? $89 a year. Ouch. Remember that this is on top of servicing, which can already be extortionate.
There’s finally an infotainment system that suits the price point of the car. For cheaper cars, it might very well be that ditching in-house development and enabling Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is the best strategy – it saves R&D cost, thus higher margin or more attractive price. The last BMW I bought second hand, costed over $130k when it was new, and honestly, the iDrive system was an absolute nightmare. BMW has come a very long way, and I can confidently say that they are moving in the right direction with their latest iDrive 6/7, which sits on the car like a cherry sits on top of a cake, compared to the old iDrive, which sat on the car like a bird poo sat on top of a cake.
Sure you might say that buying a car for its infotainment system is like watching a pornography for its plot, but I have always wondered why the houses wasn’t flooding because the plumber that came to fix it was.. otherwise engaged.