I'm sitting in a darkly lit conference room in a nondescript building tucked at the back of BMW's sprawling Research and Innovations Center in Munich, better known as the FIZ. Bernhard Niedermaier, BMW's head of human-machine interaction, is expounding on the automaker's elaborate HMI interface design process. Having stepped off a plane from the U.S. just hours earlier — with no coffee in sight — jet lag is causing my interest to wane.
It's not that Herr Niedermaier's presentation — detailing the intricacies of the design cycle that's brought to the world BMW innovations such as iDrive — isn't interesting, or the lack of sleep and caffeine that's causing my mind to drift. It's what's on the other side of the conference room's floor-to-ceiling windows that's attracting my addled attention.
All Eyes on Pupilometry
Behind the glass, in a cavernous section of the building, is a contraption that looks like an egg on stilts. It's actually BMW's Driving Simulation and Usability Lab. It's where BMW developed the latest generation of iDrive and is working on its new ConnectedDrive platform. It's also where the automaker's pioneering research into "pupilometry" is now taking place. Our small group is promised a tour of the simulator as the highlight of today's visit, and even though it was built five years ago (at a cost BMW won't divulge), we're told we're the first outsiders to get a close-up look at the lab.
Later, we descend a set of stairs and enter the huge room where the simulator is housed. There are about a dozen BMW engineers and researchers that man the facility. Curved, motorized doors open to reveal the smooth, rounded walls on the simulator's interior. We cross a short catwalk, and inside sits a BMW 5 Series (it's large enough that any of the automaker's models can be driven inside) with so many wires, cameras, sensors and assorted black boxes in the interior that it looks like something out of Q's lab in a James Bond movie.
As 3-D images of cars, trucks, road signs and pedestrians are projected on the walls of the simulator, cameras aimed at the eyes of an engineer "driving" the car measure changes in the diameter of his pupils and the frequency of those changes. This data is crunched and, in turn, helps BMW engineers and designers determine how much outside visual input drivers can safely take in. Well, that and how much distraction within the cabin they can handle and still perform the primary function of safely piloting a vehicle.
Attention Ray LaHood
Driver distraction is nothing new. (And the BMW simulator isn't unique in the auto industry: Ford's Virtual Test Track Experience simulator lab is used by the Detroit automaker for driver-distraction and drowsiness studies.) Long before iPods, smartphones, texting and tweeting became a road hazard, drivers were eating, reading, shaving and applying makeup behind the wheel. But since BMW was the first to offer iPod integration starting in 2004, the German automaker has also been proactive in developing ways to safely interact with electronics — and making sure that car buyers as well as auto safety bureaucrats are aware of the effort.
So it's no coincidence that BMW invited our group to the FIZ and the company's famed "four-cylinder" headquarters to show off its latest safety-oriented research as well as give us a first look at the next evolution of its smartphone-integration strategy, called ConnectedDrive. ConnectedDrive doesn't just encompass smartphone integration and shouldn't be confused with the futuristic vehicle the company unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show, the Vision ConnectedDrive Concept).
Rather, it's the automaker's catch-all term for tech ranging from convenience features such as active cruise control to safety systems such as night vision. But the most significant new ConnectedDrive features we're shown in Munich focus on the iPhone and two free apps for it.
All About Apple
By being the first to offer iPod integration in 2004, BMW bet years ago that the Apple device would become the dominant portable music player. And it paid off since other automakers had to play catch-up. Now that the iPod has evolved into the iPhone — and gained Internet connectivity and launched the app craze — automakers, including BMW, have been challenged with quickly and safely incorporating into vehicles every smartphone feature as well as every smartphone platform drivers want.
BMW is still all about Apple, and ConnectedDrive largely excludes devices like BlackBerry and Android. (The recently introduced BMW Office feature, for example, works with only one BlackBerry model in the U.S., the Torch.)
During our visit to BMW HQ, I asked Eckhard Steinmeier, head of BMW ConnectedDrive, the reason for the Apple-only strategy. He responded that BMW is working on integration of other popular platforms, and acknowledged that it's easier and quicker to operate within Apple's walled tech garden as opposed to, say, Android's open-source approach.
And even though it provides some unique and useful functions, the latest iteration of ConnectedDrive underwhelms with me-too features that other automakers already offer — and on multiple smartphone platforms. Plus, we were teased with features that are for European vehicles only and won't be coming to Stateside BMWs.
Assisting BMW Assist
The first of the two new iPhone apps, My BMW Remote, works in conjunction with BMW Assist, which comes standard on most of the automaker's U.S. vehicles and offers safety features such as automatic crash notification and emergency roadside assistance free for four years. An extra level of services, such as traffic and weather info, can be added for $199 a year with the Convenience plan.
After downloading the My BMW Remote app to an iPhone, owners register their vehicle via a Web site to access the following features from the device: remote door lock/unlock, remote headlight and horn activation, remotely switching on the climate control and sending navigation destination to the car. With the exception of the climate control feature, these aren't new, and other automakers offer something similar, although the send-to-car feature adds a new twist by allowing points of interest (POIs) found on Google Maps to be beamed to the car.
Some of the coolest Google-enhanced ConnectedDrive features won't make it across the pond, including Street View for navigation and Panoramio to access user-generated photos of POIs. There's also a Euro-only service that culls real-time traffic information from other mobile-phone-toting BMW drivers as well as from "probe vehicles" to give a better idea of what's waiting down the road.
Status Updates in the Dash
The second app, BMW Connected, is designed to deliver new iPhone functions to drivers, but specific in-vehicle software has to be ordered as an option. Using the app, drivers can connect to Facebook and Twitter to get visual and audible updates and post on their status. The Web-enabled iPhone can also be used to tune in Internet radio stations and store them as favorites. While checking out the system, we discovered that drivers can even choose to stream stations at lower bit rates if they're more concerned with data usage than sound quality.
ConnectedDrive enhances iPod integration by transferring the device's graphic user interface and album artwork to the vehicle's dashboard display. And if you buy a snap-in cradle (instead of simply connecting via USB), video from an iPod can be shown on the dashboard display when the car isn't moving.
Too iPhone Focused?
These features will be available across the BMW lineup starting with vehicles produced in March 2010, and should be available in showrooms shortly afterward. But by focusing on the iPhone, BMW risks turning off potential buyers who own a BlackBerry, Android or other device.
It's not as though other automakers offer better and more feature-rich functionality for every popular smartphone on the market, and BMW is still well ahead of its German and Japanese luxury-car rivals. But few such integration schemes are as blatantly brand-specific as BMW's ConnectedDrive.
This Apple-centric strategy has paid off for BMW before, and ConnectedDrive does inch the ball forward in the closely contested smartphone-integration scrimmage now being played out among automakers. But BMW will need to incorporate more devices and more features if the company wants to remain a technology leader.
And with all of the attention on driver distraction, automakers like BMW need to integrate smartphones in a way that doesn't draw attention away from the task at hand for those behind the wheel, and divert eyes from the road. You can be sure auto safety officials and advocates will be watching, hence the importance of BMW's simulator back at the FIZ — and the high-tech cameras watching drivers' eyes.