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BMW dashes into future with ConnectedDrive system

Dashboard communication system includes improved 3-D navigation, Internet, Facebook, Twitter and speech-to-text messages.

Published July 27, 2012

Once they were all about the driving experience, but now, what’s in the dash can be even more newsworthy than what’s under the hood. And that’s why, instead of driving a new BMW 7 Series prototype shipped from Germany, I’m in the passenger seat, learning all about its new ConnectedDrive.

The system contains features coming over the next year: improved 3-D navigation, speech-to-text messages, an Internet hot spot, smartphone app integration — including Facebook, Twitter, and Internet radio — and a touchpad that lets you “write” directly into the system.

“People who are going to use their phones will do it anyway,” says Kian Marandi, BMW’s specialist for ConnectedDrive. “So manufacturers are starting to add items that can reduce the distraction.”

I’m still not convinced drivers will pay any more attention to the road, but I can’t deny that what this car can do is pretty impressive. We’ve come a long way from the days when you could “tell” your high-end vehicle to perform a few electronic functions, but only after you’d painstakingly taught it to recognize your voice.

ConnectedDrive system builds on iDrive, the system that combines navigation, entertainment, communication, and system settings into a single in-dash screen, accessed through a console-mounted controller. Initially criticized for its complexity, it has since been simplified and is much easier to use.

It looks easy enough when Marandi pages through the various screens, although there’s still a learning curve. BMW is looking into having a ConnectedDrive expert in each dealership to explain it to customers.

The basic iDrive screen functions look the same, but they’re now higher-definition and three-dimensional, and when you move the controller, an animated version on the screen bumps around in sync.

The 3-D navigation will have a “High Guiding” feature: when you get close enough to your next instruction, the arrow that normally points your way will switch to a bird’s-eye perspective. The system will also warn when you’re supposed to change lanes, and will offer real-time traffic updates.

Some features depend on smartphone integration, but at the moment, not all phones work with all of them. You can snap your iPhone into a cradle and download third-party apps created specifically for BMW, as well as for Mini and Rolls-Royce. The Android platform should be on board for the integrated apps by next year, too.

But if you want to dictate and send emails or text messages, you’ll need a BlackBerry or Android, since iPhone doesn’t currently use the Message Access Profile, or MAP, that the car’s system needs. There’s still some chicken-and-egg to be worked out.That said, the voice recognition works well. Marandi dictated a text, and except for spelling a name incorrectly — you can go back and make corrections — the system transcribed his speech accurately, despite considerable background noise. (Charmingly, you have to say “stop” at the end of each sentence, like you’re sending an old-fashioned telegram.)

You need to have a subscription to BMW Assist for the telematics, and to Nuance, a cloud computing company that actually does the transcribing. Once you’ve dictated your message, it’s uploaded to Nuance, where it’s analyzed, translated into text, and sent back to show up in the car’s screen.

It took about three seconds for Marandi’s voice message to upload, translate and return. He then forwarded it by voice command. “There’s no problem with privacy,” he says. “Nuance only analyzes the text. It doesn’t store data.” BMW uses the cloud because of the intricacy of speech-to-text; Marandi says an on-board program would be prohibitively expensive.

All of those features will be available by the fall. There’s no time frame yet on the high-speed Internet hot spot accessory, which will use the customer’s LTE-capable SIM card.

The touch-sensitive controller, which arrives next year, swaps the current iDrive controller for one with a touch pad on top. It can still be turned or pushed as now, but you’ll also be able to sweep your fingers to zoom in on the screen, as with an iPhone. And if you trace a letter with your fingertip, it’ll appear onscreen, bringing up corresponding data, such as all the names in your contact list that start with it. It’s similar to Audi’s system, but that one uses a pad on the console.

The controller is already being added to models in China. The company says it’s because the rigid sequence of strokes that defines each Chinese character is ideally suited to the technology, but the fact that it’s one of BMW’s largest markets doesn’t hurt either.

And if you already have a BMW, the company says that, depending on the year and model, some of the features will eventually be available as a retrofit.

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