BMW's iDrive 8 helps drivers using machine learning and natural language processing

It will debut aboard the upcoming iX electric SUV

Two decades after its debut in the 2001 Series 7, BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is among the best on the market. It’s about to get even better — think, natural language processing, gesture control and cloud-based machine learning — with the release of its latest iteration, iDrive 8, aboard the upcoming BMW iX and i4.

BMW iDrive 8

The system’s onboard AI, BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, will be the driver’s primary point of contact when interacting with the new iDrive 8. The driver will be able to give the IPA a personalized name and then cue up various in-vehicle functions and information streams using either verbal or non-verbal commands. The new iDrive 8 has also been issued a face of sorts, “spheres of light in differing sizes and brightness levels, giving the assistant more space and new ways of expressing itself,” per a BMW press release.

Drivers will also find the iDrive 8 offers more contextual functionality than its predecessors. The new system will take external conditions like traffic and road conditions into account before attempting to interact with the vehicle’s passengers. It will also “control functions such as climate control, ambient lighting, audio playback, opening and closing of the side windows, shading of the panoramic glass roof, switching between My Modes, and the driver assistance systems” so the driver won’t have to take their eyes off the road in heavy traffic conditions to find the front defrost controls on a touchscreen menu. What’s more, the IPA can also deliver vehicle status information and provide details on local points of interest.

“The future will be with less switches, BMW CTO Frank Weber said during an online roundtable on Monday. “But it won't be switchless.”

iDrive 8

My Modes is another new feature to iDrive 8, replacing the older Driving Experience Controls. It enables the driver to personalize and activate up to ten vehicle parameters under a single command grouping. The preset Modes include Efficient, which prioritizes energy efficiency and a calming cabin interior; Sport, which boosts acceleration and handling; and Personal, which is whatever you want it to be. Additional modes will eventually be made available to the BMW community through future OTA updates using the vehicle’s onboard 5G connectivity.

The iDrive’s various monitors and gauges will appear on BMW’s new Curved Display which combines a 200 ppi 12.3-inch information display in lieu of the traditional control cluster, and a 14.9-inch control (read, infotainment) display. The all-electric iX will also include a HUD, whose projector is integrated within the steering column itself, showing the driver pertinent vehicle information directly on the windshield ahead of them. To ensure that the driver doesn’t become distracted with extraneous information, BMW has adopted a “Act, Locate and Inform” principle in which “pre-filtering ensures that only information relevant to the driving situation is presented to the driver, and always shown where they can absorb it as quickly and easily as possible,” per the company.

The iDrive’s graphics are similarly designed for minimal driver distraction. Like previous iterations, the iDrive 8 will allow drivers to personalize their various graphic displays and quickly swap between three preset menu layouts and a host of media widgets using tactile buttons mounted on the steering wheel. These presets include Drive, which offers “a dynamically changing area in the center of the information display to show individually selectable information;” Focus, which keeps the driving gauges front and center; and Gallery, which seems like a really bad idea as it minimizes the instrument cluster in favor of media widgets. There is also a Calm mode that shows the vehicle’s speed and nothing else.

BMW iDrive 8

Drivers will also be able to take their personal settings with them with the new BMW ID feature, which is tied to either a PIN or the driver’s MyBMW app. Simply enter the PIN or entangle your app with any vehicle sporting an iDrive 7 or 8 to immediately port virtually every one of your preference settings to the new car — super helpful if you’ve just received a loaner from the dealership.

BMW is also leaning heavily on cloud-based machine learning to improve the IPA’s responsiveness as well as the iX’s navigation system. Rather than simply ingesting and regurgitating traffic data at the driver, the new iDrive 8 has learned to calculate probabilities. For example, it will leverage the traffic patterns around local points of interest to return more accurate ETAs. It can help drivers find open parking spaces near their destination. The same applies to the vehicle’s air conditioning. BMW taught the iDrive 8 to better anticipate the climate control needs of its drivers based on 440 million training trips from around the world. This allows the iDrive to automatically set the optimum cabin temperature based on not only the external environmental conditions but also the driver’s personal habits.