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Testing BMW’s New Connected+ Technology in a 530e iPerformance

Munich goes into the cloud

In today's world, we rely ever more increasingly on the capabilities of our digital profiles. Car manufacturers have even started to increase the level of connection between these profiles and the cars we drive. We only need to think back to a decade ago when something like a Bluetooth connection was revolutionary. Now we have 4G LTE internet hotspots and full smartphone integration, bringing automotive connectivity into the 21st century. However, BMW has recently gone one step further with its BMW Connected+ technology, which we tested on a new 530e iPerformance.

BMW has offered varying levels of connectivity for a number of years now, but hit a major milestone in March of 2016 with the launch of BMW Connected, now available in 29 countries and in 18 different languages. Timed perfectly with BMW's one-millionth connected user, Munich launched the enhanced BMW Connected+ technology in July 2017.

Billed as the 'next level of in-car personalization', we got our hands on the system at one of BMW's software development offices in Chicago, and the results are quite impressive.

The 'old' BMW Connected system allowed you to control certain features of your car from a smartphone app, such as remote vehicle locking and unlocking and climate preconditioning. The new app builds upon the old and offers a higher level of connection to your personal world. Thom Brenner - VP Connected Car - pitches it as the marriage of VIN and PIN: "We asked ourselves 'How can BMW be a part of your life before you get in the car?'" One of the ways BMW wishes to answer this lies partly with their partnership with Amazon, utilizing the latest digital assistant phenomenon; Amazon Alexa.

Imagine you are heading out to a restaurant in your BMW. You ask Alexa what the weather is like outside and she tells you that it is cold. You can ask Alexa to precondition your car to a higher temperature without touching a single bit of hardware. Not only this, but you can tell her to set a destination in your car's navigation, and by the time you have opened the door of your BMW, she will have already sent the information to the iDrive system.

Not only this, but BMW has also integrated a time-to-leave function that takes cues from your calendar appointments, your destination co-ordinates, and the time. Whether using a smartphone or smart watch, BMW will ping a notification to your desired control surface, letting you know when you need to leave to make your appointment in time. It will even give you walking directions to where you left your car. When en route, you can also choose to send a live map of your location and route to someone waiting at the destination end point.

All of the computing power to do this is outsourced from the car to the cloud. Data requests are sent from the car to Microsoft's Azure cloud computing system, where the data is processed and then relayed back to you in the car. However, the system is smart; every time that you send a command to the cloud - let's say you regularly ask your navigation to go to a certain place - the cloud learns your preferences and can use this information to predict your commands.

So how does this connectivity tech work in the real world? After BMW's demonstration finished, we swiped the keys to a demo car, an iPhone, and an Apple watch in an effort to get to know the system a little better.

The coolest and most novel function we tested was the remote surround view feature, called Remote 3D View. Cameras located in the front and rear bumpers and both wing mirrors take an image of the car's surroundings. The images from all four cameras are then stitched together and modeled by computer simulation to appear as if you are outside of the car, looking back. This real-world view of your car is then superimposed over a 3D rendering of your car, where you can then pinch and zoom to virtually look around your car and its surroundings, no matter where it is. The system could be used to check on your car if you are unsure of its settings from afar, but we just used it to take what might have been the world's first car selfie. (Android users are out of luck, however; Remote 3D View is only compatible for iOS at present.)

Ever parked in a parking lot and gone about your business, only to discover later that you forgot exactly where you parked? Do not fear, the app can send walking directions from your current spot directly to your car. You can even honk the horn or flash the lights remotely if you forgot exactly where you are in the parking lot.

A neat feature that is available in Chinese markets (but not here), is the driver request app. Imagine you have had a few too many drinks at a restaurant and can't drive. This app allows you to request a driver to find his way to your car using your GPS co-ordinates, who will then take the wheel and drive you home. Safe and sound.

Using the system for a few days puts the technology's capabilities in the spotlight. The navigation and routing services are incredibly intuitive, and although we didn't use an Amazon Alexa interface, we can see how this would provide a seamless link between pre-trip prep and the journey itself.

Not only does BMW get access to the Azure cloud computing system, but it also has all of the state-of-the-art tools for analyzing the system, ensuring it is always working at its best potential. In real-time, we were shown every metric imaginable on a large screen, just like in the sci-fi films.

Unlike a car model lifecycle of 3, 5, or even 7 years, this technology has a lifespan of around 2 weeks. The software development teams like the one in Chicago roll out Minimal Viable Products for consumers to try, and then based upon feedback and real-world testing, they can update at 2 week intervals. This allows the users to have the latest and best features available as soon as is viable, rather than waiting months or even years.

We also tried the BMW Connected+ app with Android hardware and came across minor irritations. The Android version doesn't have the full capabilities that the iOS system has, but BMW promised us that the Android version will be brought in line with the iPhone app soon.

BMW's Connected+ technology is a large step into the next level of automotive connectivity. Whereas the old business model was that when a car left the factory, it was finished, the new model is that when a car leaves the factory, it starts to live.