An Inside Look at How BMW is Making iDrive Safer & Better

In 2001 BMW shook-up the automotive world with iDrive. There were those who loved the concept. In fact Jeremy Clarkson had this to say, “I know it sounds frightening, having one button which does everything, but think of it as the mouse on a computer and it makes perfect sense. ” And then there were those that hated the concept. Most arguments centered on the array of confusing menus and the hidden functionality behind them. And there were many people who were simply unconvinced and believed dozens of buttons were simpler solution. But what many missed was that BMW didn ‘t invent something to simply show that they were progressive. What they were doing was separating driving from information and entertainment functions and thus separating displays from the controls. In other words the main force behind iDrive was to make cars safer.

Fast forward to 2011 and the world has changed even further. We consume data at a rate markedly faster than ten years ago. And with new technology creeping into cars via smartphones there ‘s a new challenge with technology like iDrive. Thankfully BMW has learned a lot in the years following the launch of that first iDrive HMI system (an industry acronym for human machine interface). They ‘ve evolved the concept to allow for shortcuts and much more intuitive operation. But more importantly they ‘ve created a platform that can act as a vehicle for enormous amount of new functionality that weren ‘t available in 2001. And on top of it all they ‘ve made it easier to use. How did they manage to pull it off? Read on…

BimmerFile was recently invited to Munich and into the very secret BMW labs that birthed the original HMI interface known as iDrive. There we sat down with Dr. Bernarhd Neidermaier, Head of Human Interface at BMW to talk about iDrive, the concept, and testing behind the ideas we see in modern BMWs.

As Dr. Neidermaier explained, it all starts with the study of driver distraction. In fact, it ‘s an idea that BMW has been studying closely since the mid 1990 ‘s. In recent year,s BMW has moved to using eye tracking technology to better quantify what it really means to take your eyes off the road in order to interact with technology. With a special rig that consists of tiny camera attached to glasses (focusing on the eye) and another focusing on what the driver looks at, the eye-tracking process allows BMW to calculate the exact time it takes to perform any function within the car.

There are several different guidelines throughout the world (notably from the EU, US and Japan) that BMW follows. However, it ‘s worth noting that BMW researchers also work with these governments (especially the US) to share research and best practices. Through this work BMW has learned that there should be no task within a car ‘s HMI that takes more than 2 full seconds. While it ‘s easy to say that, it ‘s another thing to create complex systems that integrate all kinds of data that adhere do it.

Over the course of this research there were several key findings that have allowed the current BMW HMI to be one of the safest on the market. The first is to give the driver all the controls they need without tilting or lifting the shoulder from the seat. It ‘s an easy test and one that I fail every time with the old-school navigation in my E46 3 Series.

But BMW ‘s research has shown that moving controls is just the first step. They ‘ve found that all displays should be above a center-point of the dash. This limits the time it takes for a drivers ‘ eyes to glance from the road to the controls and back the road.

Finally BMW has found that controls should be located downwards (towards the center console) so the driver can operate them without having to lift their shoulder from the seat. According to BMW engineers, if your shoulder lifts and you have your seat properly adjusted the HMI design isn ‘t optimal. As you can see in the photo below all modern BMW ‘s (in this case an F10 5 Series) have been following both of these philosophies that were initially established with the E65 7 Series in 2001.

Furthermore, those functions that are needed for driving must be situated directly in front of the driver. It sounds obvious but there have been many examples over the years of driving related displays pushed towards the center. In the case of the MINI, the center speedometer. Although BMW made sure to give the driver a digital speed read-out in the tachometer directly in front of them. Without it, BMW ‘s smallest car would fail their own usability testing.

Based on the research a driver ‘s information goes from center to the sides in order of importance. That means the tertiary stuff like oil temp etc. should be well out of the way of the speed and engine RPMs.

For the latest iDrive design, BMW went through three rounds of design and usability testing. And it ‘s an intense process with testing taking place all over the world to get valuable feedback from many different cultures and demographics. The first round started with four design concepts that pushed ideas in different directions. After the first round that was taken down to two refined concepts. Once the final design was chosen it was subjected to yet more usability testing, however this time under real conditions on the road. The result is what we see today in all BMWs.

Some of your are undoubtedly asking yourself, why bring this technology into car at all? As Dr. Neidermaier put it, drivers are going to want to interact with technology while in the driver ‘s seat. BMW ‘s job is to give them tools to access that data without impacting their ability to drive.

It ‘s been ten years since iDrive was introduced and since that time its been widely adopted (or perhaps imitated) in the automotive world. While the first generation may not have been a fast or as refined as some would have hoped, we wouldn ‘t be where we are today without it. And the research by BMW ‘s Center of Driving Simulation run by Dr Neidermaier deserve a lot of that credit.

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  • Steve Mask

    I’ve driven the Audi Q7 which seems to have the same nav but with a different media and phone interface and the controls to use it are all over the place. My wife has iDrive in her car and love the simplicity of it. It doesn’t take long before you just know where each of the buttons are. They’re even grouped nicely with media to the left and nav and tele to the right. The option button is similar to the right-click of a mouse with the back button being similar to being on the left as in a browser.