It looks like BMW is looking to catch up with Audi's MMI infotainment system, and then blow it into the weeds: the German automaker released a huge suite of changes to the iDrive/ConnectedDrive system that will update or upgrade many key features.
First things first: the iDrive controller is here to stay, but it'll look and feel different to today's knob. The controller will get bigger--about 45 mm wide in the new model to the old model's 35-mm diameter--and gain a touch-sensitive panel on the top of it, like the upcoming Audi MMI Touch setups. Also like the Audi system, the iDrive touch controller will work as a touch-keyboard that will allow users to draw letters or numbers to input them into the navigation system. Interestingly, the new system's touch controller will alsorecognize Chinese characters.
If entering letters by touch isn't quick enough for you, there's another option. BMW teamed up with Dragon, the company behinda string of voice-to-text software programs, to come up with a new type of voice recognition system. It works a bit like the Siri feature on iPhones: it uses a server – not on-board software -- to figure out what you're saying, and as a result, it can parse what you're saying more effectively. In theory, you'll be able to punch in a navigation destination or call someone without knowing a specific call/dial command or the specific commands required by the GPS. When the driver gets a text message or email, the BMW system can read it aloud, and take dictation for a response, instead of relying on canned responses.
Additionally, the BMW system will gain a SIM card and a data connection, allowing it to connect directly to the Internet and download information for auxiliary applications, traffic details, and weather reports. It can also share that Internet connection with other devices in the car, acting as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Once again, this is just like the MMI system currently on Audis.
But here's where the Audi and BMW systems diverge: while Audi's MMI currently uses 3G cellular internet, the BMW system will support 4G LTE, which can be up to ten times faster than 3G. Because LTE coverage isn't yet universal, the BMW system can revert to 3G or 2G/GSM when the signal gets low. In areas where LTE is up and running, the BMW navigation system and hotspot users should see a serious boost in speed.
As for the on-board navigation, it's going three-dimensional, with a 3D city mode that models buildings. While route guidance is engaged and a turn is coming closer, the navigation system automatically goes from a simple arrow to a three-dimensional, birds-eye view of the intersection (which includes traffic information), and as the driver gets closer the system switches to an overhead view of the intersection and can overlay information about lane choice.
These are only a few of the upgrades--BMW also said that the on-board hard drive for music file storage has grown to 20 GB, and that it will release an open Software Development Kit to open up BMW Apps to new applications beyond the Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Pandora, and MOG applications it currently supports. BMW also promises some long-awaited support for Android devices, which should satisfy the nearly 50 percent of the smartphone market that doesn't use Apple devices.
Expect to see these updates soon: BMW claims that the earliest we'll see the new features in the flesh could be this month, but didn't specify when and where. Dragon, meanwhile, claims that the first cars to get their new voice activation features (which would probably mean all new features) will be the 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 3 and 3 Series Touring, which bow this fall and next spring, respectively.