iDriving a BMW

"Would you like to drive it?" asked Rob Passaro, Head of BMW AppCenter, as we finished up our in-car interview from a suburban street in Austin. I'd been admiring the BMW 650i convertible from the passenger seat, particularly the state of the art infotainment system that was the subject of our discussion. But I didn't need a second invitation to get behind the wheel! "Oh, I should tell you," I said as I lurched the sleek black vehicle out into the street, "I'm used to driving on the left."

I had made it my mission to check out car infotainment systems at SXSW Interactive. Most of the major car manufacturers were present at the trendy Internet event. A couple of them made a big marketing splash. General Motor's Chevy division had a a showcase at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop in Austin and its Catch-a-Chevy taxi service was well used. Meanwhile its US competitor Ford threw an electronica-fueled party at Stubb's. Others, like BMW, were relatively under the radar. Which gave me the opportunity to drive a BMW, in order to check out its latest technologies.

What all of the current generation of car infotainment systems have in common is that they are primarily driver focused, with entertainment and navigation the main features. Music in particular is a common application, featuring third party music services like Pandora and Stitcher. In my discussions at SXSW with representatives of Chevy, Ford, BMW and Audi, I discovered that future systems will broaden to include passenger infotainment, advanced car navigation and Internet-enabled automation.

The Evolution of iDrive

BMW's infotainment system is called iDrive. The iDrive LCD panel sits quite high on the dashboard and is controlled by a knob on the center console (next to the gear lever).

iDrive allows the driver to use audio and communication services, plus advanced navigation. The controller knob is designed to be used with one hand and without taking your eyes off the road. Voice controls are also available.

iDrive has been around for over 10 years. The first generation, based on a Microsoft operating system called Windows CE for Automotive, debuted in September 2001 with the BMW 7-Series. It had limited online functionality at the time, but full Internet access arrived in 2008.

The current model iDrive has a built-in browser service called BMW Online. The browser is where drivers access information like Google Maps, business news and online weather updates.

Apps for BMW

BMW Apps is where third party apps come into the car, via the iPhone. Stitcher, the online streaming radio service, is the latest addition and was announced during SXSW. There are only three other third party apps so far, all of them music services: Pandora, MOG and Aupeo.

Although BMW only supports iOS at this stage, Passaro told me that support for other platforms is in development.

You can use Facebook and Twitter inside a BMW, via a custom built BMW app called BMW Connected. This works by plugging your iPhone into the console, then a simplified UI displays Facebook and Twitter. One feature Passaro showed me is audio tweeting, enabling you to compose tweets (with optional location added via GPS) with your voice.

BMW Connected also features an RSS news reader, Last Mile navigation (for example, to find your car in a parking lot), calendar and Wiki Local (which reads out Wikipedia articles about nearby points of interest). BMW Connected was deployed across all BMW models in March 2011.

Driver distraction is a big issue for car manufacturers. All of them work with government authorities to determine the regulations. Passaro told me that BMW "matches or exceeds current and future regulations" for driver distraction, which he said allows it to be future-proof.

The Future of iDrive

What's next for BMW's infotainment system? Passaro said that BMW is actively working with other third party developers. It has an SDK (software development kit), but it only gives access to selected partners. While entertainment - and in particular music - remains a focus for now, Passaro hinted at future apps based on productivity and location.

I asked what might BMW drivers expect in the future from their Internet consoles. Passaro replied that there will be more performance oriented apps, for example tracking data from the car and Internet (such as road data) to help improve driving. He also expects interesting things to happen when developers mix it up - for example entertainment plus location.

BMW's infotainment system has had usability complaints in the past, but it has since evolved into a solid, if unspectacular, Internet enabled system. The third party apps are limited to music at this stage, so - even after more than 10 years - one suspects that Internet connectivity in BMWs is still young.

(No BMW vehicles were harmed in the making of this story)