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BMW ConnectedDrive: on the road with the internet of things

Always-on internet; an always-on human within reach; and a seriously cool, jet fighter style heads-up display.

Sun, 14 Dec 2014

I recently took a BMW X3 20D for a spin. 

You can check out NBR's review of its motoring performance here. I was checking the X3's high-tech interface features: Always-on internet; an always-on human within reach; and a seriously cool, jet fighter style heads-up display.

Like most new vehicle's in the German car maker's range (bar the X1 and Z4), it features ConnectedDrive — a series of services and apps that take advantage of a Vodafone SIM card embedded in each vehicle during manufacture.

The two companies first partnered in 2012, and there are now 17.5 million BMWs worldwide on Vodafone's mobile network.

This year has seen further expansion and upgrading of ConnectedDrive, which spans from the basic, such as sending service and maintenance information between a car and BMW, to the more advanced. For example, ConnectedDrive can be used to remotely diagnose an engine malfunction.

Or if you're in a crash, the SIM will automatically send BMW information on factors such as your vehicle's rate of deceleration before the impact (an indicator of the serverity of the accident), and its location (gathered by GPS, also built in). These are examples of the fast-growing area of machine-to-machine (or m2m) communications; the so-called "internet of things" that will soon see more smart devices talking to each other over the net than people.

But for such a high tech service, it's a human touch that sets ConnectedDrive apart. I'm talking about its Concierge service, which NBR motoring editor David Linklater says is unique to the NZ market.

A couple of presses on the ConnectedDrive interface puts you on speakerphone (via your car's embedded Vodafone SIM card) to a real-live person at a BMW help centre.

You can ask this Concierge anything. I requested the location of the nearest petrol station (see clip below), but anything goes as long as it's legal and can be looked up on line.

ABOVE: Using Concierge.

Then — and this is the really nifty bit, melding human touch and high tech — the BMW Concierge sent the location of the petrol station directly to me X3's sat nav system and heads-up display (more on which shortly).

The Concierge call centre is 24 hours, seven days a week. NZ calls go through to a call centre in the Phillipines. The three operators I spoke too had perfect English. Regardless, the Concierge doesn't need to be able to recognise the pronounciation of the street or suburb you're in: they can see your location via GPS.

The ConnectedDrive gives you access to Google if you want to do searches for yourself via the dashboard screen. The main iDrive dash display is not a touchscreen, but you do get a voice control option, and the option to finger-write street names on a touchpad on top of a toggle stick (complete with smart auto-fill and narrow-down options). But if you're in unfamiliar territory, or just want to keep moving, Concierge is useful.

ConnectedDrive can also be used for a manual SOS call, which is as simple as pressing an SOS button then being put through to BMW on speakerphone. (Emergency call and teleservice features remain active for the life of the car. Services and apps will cost $600 for a three-year subscription, with another $400 for the concierge connection. Internet adds $150 per year).

The heads-up display (click to zoom).

The other feature that blew me away on the X3 was the fighter-jet style head-up display. You're speed and (if you're using the sat-nav) a basic map are projected onto the front windscreen, and appear as if in the middle distance. If you've got your smartphone connected via Bluetooth, your address book and call status can also be projected onto the HUD. It's tricky to photograph, but in real life the HUD is crisp and sharp. It's very cool, and of course safer and easier than glancing back and forth at a dashboard display, and much less intrusive than a windscreen-mounted gadget. It's optional, and height and angle-adustable. 

ConnectedDrive also integrates with iPhone and Android apps, which allows you to send location information or business details directly to the car from your phone, use your mobile as a remote to unlock the car or sound the horn, and check social media or use Internet radio in-car on the iDrive screen (the main dashboard display).

BMW is also one of the official partners for Apple's coming CarPlay intiaitve, for tightly integrating iOS (the software used to run iPhones and iPads) with dashboard displays.

Always-available internet via ConnectedDrive means you can get real-time weather updates through BMW's iDrive, or any information on the internet through Google.

We've been through a period where some car makers have tried to pack-in too much tech, or at least over-complicated dashboard interfaces.

Now we're coming out the otherside, and things are looking promising. ConnectedDrive includes both elements necessary for a statisfying high-tech experience: always-on internet, and taking complex data and services and presenting them to the driver in simple fashion.

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BMW ConnectedDrive: on the road with the internet of things