“Daunting and overly complex”, “Ill thought out and poorly executed”, “Maddeningly frustrating”. These were not the plaudits BMW was looking for when its brand new iDrive user interface was launched in its flagship 7 Series back in 2001. Undaunted, BMW tweaked and refined iDrive into what is now acknowledged as one of the most intuitive and easy to operate systems on the market.
1999: THE FIRST SIGNS OF iDRIVE
As early as 1999 BMW was experimenting with its control systems with a concept car known as the Z9 that was exhibited at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It was a bizarre-looking machine – perhaps intentionally to soften us up for the arrival of the 7 Series – but it was inside that BMW’s thought process for its next generation of interiors became clear.
Bar stalks for the indicators and wipers, a headlight switch and a starter button, the dashboard was entirely devoid of buttons with all other functions being taken over by what BMW termed the ‘Intuitive Interaction Concept’ – a large rotary knob mounted within the centre console that operated a centrally mounted LCD screen in the middle of the dashboard. The idea behind the system was that with ever increasing equipment levels it simply wasn’t safe or practical to have a dashboard covered in a plethora of buttons that would cause the driver to take their eyes off the road to locate the one they were after.
Instead BMW suggested all the car’s systems could be operated by the rotary controller and the display screen. The screen was mounted high in the dash so the driver could see what was being displayed in their peripheral vision without fully taking their eyes off the road.
While this was all well and good in theory it obviously became clear to BMW that some tweaks were required and when it rolled out a second version of the Z9 concept – a convertible this time (pictured below) – at the Paris Motor Show in 2000 some changes had been made.
The rotary controller was still in evidence but the heating and ventilation controls had returned to the centre of the dash and there was an on/off button for the stereo along with a hazard light warning switch.
iDRIVE IN A PRODUCTION CAR
When the 7 Series made its debut in 2001 it sported a very similar set up to the Z9 convertible, but the control concept had a new name: iDrive. It was incredibly complex and thus the cause of much consternation. To prove as much, it took a 200-page handbook to detail how more than 700 different adjustments to the vehicle could be made via iDrive…
The rotary controller could be pushed in eight different directions – north, south, east and west for communication, navigation, entertainment and climate – while the minor compass points took care of the on-board computer, a help menu, settings and BMW Assist. Once a menu had been selected the controller was pressed down to confirm the selection and then by twisting the controller you could navigate through the menu to select the item you wanted. Twisting the controller was accompanied by haptic feedback to help in moving between functions.
It was hugely complex and journalists, who had to test the system as well as assessing the 7 Series itself, didn’t warm to it. Owners, however, were generally impressed once given proper time to become au fait with the set up, although in reality it was still far from perfect. Switching bands on the radio or between entertainment sources for example involved sliding, pushing and twisting the iDrive controller rather than pressing a simple button on the dash.
Over the years BMW has refined the iDrive system. A ‘Menu’ button was an early addition, allowing users to return quickly to the home screen, while the interface was streamlined to include a simpler four points of the compass layout. In 2007 BMW also added eight ‘favourite’ buttons below the CD slot which could be programmed with functions such as radio stations, phone numbers and satnav destinations.
All the while both processor power and hard drive space increased, and in 2008 the next generation 7 Series showcased a thoroughly updated system. The iDrive controller was now surrounded by shortcut buttons to take you directly to the audio, navigation or communications sections while the main menu screen dropped the four points of the compass set up for an easier to navigate list. You could now store 20GB of music on the system and there was even a function to use your finger to spell out letters of the alphabet on the top of the iDrive controller.
With years of constant refinement iDrive had come of age – it was simple, intuitive and best of all, with a small amount of familiarity, it could be operated without taking your eyes off the road. Today’s models have added touchscreen functionality but for use on the move the iDrive controller still takes some beating.
Other manufacturers have tried to better iDrive but it’s still arguably the best user interface on the market – it’s come a long way since its inauspicious origins.
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