As most of you already know, the European luxury carmakers are facing a new threat. It doesn't come in the form of ever-improving Asian automobiles, a slipping reputation for quality or even a rising Euro (though you can be certain none of these elements are helping the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes).
No, this latest threat comes from perhaps the most insidious source imaginable — it's the enemy within. And within Audi, BMW and Mercedes there is a sense of techno-desperation that is proving far more destructive than failed ignition coils, cheap interior plastic or "flame surfacing." It's this need to be on the "cutting edge" of design and technology that demanded COMAND from Mercedes in 2000, drove BMW to iDrive in 2002 and introduced us to the Multi-Media Interface in the 2004 Audi A8.
A simple analysis of these cockpit control systems confirms that creating the perfect user interface isn't easy but it is possible. Starting with COMAND, we know Mercedes envisioned a highly advanced set of controls that would allow the driver to access the car's many functions. It was the first real effort to combine audio, navigation and communication (cell phone) systems into a single interface. Voice activation was a key element of the system, but as anyone who has dealt with voice command systems knows, this technology still isn't perfect (it wasn't even "good" back in 2000, when COMAND debuted). After a few hours in the all-new 2000 S-Class, much of it spent flipping through the 200-plus-page instruction manual, most customers and automotive analysts agreed: the promise of a highly advanced, easy-to-use driver interface wasn't met by COMAND. The single biggest issue was the sheer volume of buttons that made up the control layout, though the typical German pictograms that are often found in European cars didn't help.
Next came BMW's iDrive when it debuted on the all-new 7 Series in 2002. The BMW engineers had apparently learned from Mercedes' mistake, as they went in the opposite direction with their control system. Instead of having a center panel cluttered with buttons, iDrive was made up of a single, simple dial and no buttons. Of course the dial not only turned but had to be pushed and slid to fully operate. It was like having a computer mouse in the center console. What could be simpler, right?
Well, while iDrive's control interface is simple, making simple adjustments is not. My favorite example is trying to tune in a specific radio station, which requires scrolling through multiple LCD screens unless the station is strong enough to be picked up by the "seek" button (a rarity in the crowded airwaves over Los Angeles). A power/volume dial is the only other high-level control device for the audio system in the new 7 Series (and the subsequently introduced 5 and 6 Series). Our original experience in the 7 Series brought to light numerous technical glitches that had the audio system staying on when we wanted it off, and coming on randomly when it shouldn't have — such as after we'd parked and locked the vehicle.
Since that time we've driven the new 5 and 6 Series and found similar issues with iDrive. I noted one specific issue while trying to adjust the audio system's bass and treble settings (after wading through multiple LCD screens, of course). In this case, the graphical representations of the bass and treble settings on the LCD screen, along with the actual changes in the settings, were lagging behind the action of my hand turning the iDrive dial. So as I tried to listen for when the bass and treble were properly adjusted, I noticed that although my hand was turning the dial, no change in settings was occurring, either on the screen or in the sound quality. Naturally I tuned the dial further when I saw this and then — WHAM! — the system caught up quickly, pushing the sound of David Bowie from a Barry White-like low to an Alvin and the Chipmunks-high in a fraction of a second.
Two thoughts occurred to me as I experienced this. First, how ironic is it that BMW has invested all those countless man-hours and untold resources in creating the latest batch of high-fidelity Harman Kardon sound systems, only to pair it with a user interface that makes it nearly impossible to properly adjust the tonal qualities? Second, this has never happened to me in a $20,000 Honda Civic, a $12,000 Hyundai Elantra or a 31-year-old $1,700 Saab Sonett.
Which brings us to Audi's Multi-Media Interface (MMI). I first tried MMI in the all-new 2004 Audi A8, and subsequently in the 2004 Bentley Continental GT. As is often the case, this third attempt in advanced-yet-simple user interfaces has been the charm. Rather than the "too many" philosophy of Mercedes' COMAND or the "too few" thinking behind iDrive, MMI uses a "just right" approach to mixing dials, buttons and LCD menus. The key here is that several large, clearly labeled buttons allow instantaneous access to primary functions (audio, climate, nav and so on). From there it's a relatively short trip through the menus to access whatever specific adjustment you seek. There's even a "Back" button for those times when all of us would simply like to go back to the previous screen (just like when we're browsing the Internet).
I applaud the latest climate control systems in BMW's new 5 and 6 Series. The three simple dials complemented by key buttons for air conditioning, recirculation and, most importantly, system off (with a clearly labeled "Off" button rather than some nonsensical pictogram) is a step in the right direction. If BMW were to follow this same thinking for its audio systems, I could forgive the whole iDrive debacle, an interface that works fine for less commonly used functions, like adjusting the behavior of the power door locks or the display of navigation screen information. But as it stands I am officially denouncing iDrive as a failure from both a technical and functional standpoint.
If you don't believe me, take back-to-back test-drives in the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and see how long it takes to program your home address into each one's navigation system. Then try the same exercise in a Lexus LS 430 using its "old-fashioned" touchscreen interface .