Over-the-air updates now let BMWs add new features - even as secondhand cars

Published: 03 July 2020

► New over-the-air updates for BMWs
► Latest connected car features revealed
► Add new features, phone unlock and more 

BMW’s latest suite of connected car updates introduce a raft of clever new features to its cars – letting owners add more services over time and future owners completely re-spec secondhand cars.

All BMWs with the seventh generation operating system (OS7) will be eligible for over-the-air updates, which don’t just add digital services but also physical ones. We expect many new functions to be available on a monthly subscription, meaning you could pay a few quid extra a month to trial gadgets like smart cruise control to see if it’s worth signing up for a year or longer.

The latest release brings the following features to eligible models:

  • BMW Maps Cloud-based mapping brings faster navigation and real-time data, such as traffic updates borne from 14 million connected BMWs
  • Connected Parking services To show you which spaces are free
  • BMW Digital Key So you can use your iPhone as a key to unlock and start the car, using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology
  • Android Auto Finally, Munich adds Android connectivity alongside Apple CarPlay so your phone can sync with your car
  • BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant Better voice recognition and bespoke assistance – will even learn your regular patterns and eg lower the window when you approach a toll booth on your commute
  • New features The digital and physical worlds collide in the latest updates, which let owners spec new services, such as auto high beam, active cruise control and even heated seats

So inter-connected are many of the car’s systems that BMW is confident the hardware already enables many of these functions, even if the software hasn’t been enabled. If this sounds familiar, this is because Tesla has been doing this for years. 

We’ll be getting hands-on with the latest OS7 BMW release in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for our test coming soon – and read on for more background on BMW iDrive and OS7.

What’s new for iDrive 7.0?

BMW announced a major update to its iDrive multi-controller system back in 2018 – and CAR magazine went hands-on with the new OS 7.0 in a special preview in Munich.

The 12.5in digital screen as part of BMW iDrive 7.0

The new iDrive infotainment system is part of a broad suite of new services being rolled out by the premium car maker. It made its production debut on the new BMW X5 SUV in summer 2018, as well as the 3-series and 8-series that autumn.

The iDrive multi-controller has been with us since 2001, believe it or not. At first, it was a groundbreaking new way of controlling the flood of digital controls in modern cars – and it bamboozled many. This correspondent was sent to test it on the then-new 7-series with a list of complicated tasks and was timed changing radio stations and syncing phones.

Fast-forward to 2018 and BMW refined the system to be one of the best multi-controllers yet. And here is the latest iteration, in a very Apple-esque update that makes you realise it’s as much software developer as car maker these days. 

In a nutshell, the update is designed to streamline the information architecture of iDrive 6.0 (what you’ll find on today’s 5-series), present less information to the user but prioritise what they really want to see – and look better, more modern, more natural and less distracting, its makers told CAR.

Is there still a rotary controller? Or is it all voice-activated?

Fret not. The round knob still takes pride of place in the centre console. It’s been given a bit of a makeover and looks more jewel-like on the next X5, but its functionality is little changed. Every function can be accessed via touchscreen or rotary controller.

There are two main navigational controls on screen now. The left arrow on the homescreen can be tipped to enter a pop-out primary menu (navigation, media, settings) while a top toolbar runs the most popular commands (recent destinations, calls etc).

You can still customise the homepage live tiles, with a maximum of four ‘widgets’ on screen, and you can swipe through a maximum of 10 pages. To put that another way, you can store 40 of your favourite apps (nav, trip computer, media, parking, weather, news, whatever) just a few swipes or scrolls away.

New non-round dials on the 2018 BMW X5

Each user is assigned a profile, which can be connected to your key, a PIN number on entry or – soon – your phone (dubbed ‘Digital Key’ by BMW, although this is not yet announced). This stores all your favourites and is displayed top right on the right-hand digital screen, just as it would be on a web browser when you’re logged in.

You’ll see a lot of that: this is UX for a connected generation…

What’s happened to my favourite BMW round dials?

Yep, the main dials have changed, too (above). In place of the usual circular instruments we’ve become accustomed to, the new dials describe a more angular shape. It’s designed to echo the chamfered contours of the new BMW grille – the motif is even repeated in the interior door handles.

The instruments themselves are 100% digital, shrinking and reformatting depending on need. So you can pop a direction-of-travel map in between the dials and you can choose what info to display in the right: pick from a G-meter in Sport mode, album artwork if you’re listening to music or an eco meter.

Note how the dials are tinged red in Sport, while Eco Plus is coloured blue (see below); this shades to grey if you’re not being efficient enough, encouraging more responsible driving, says BMW.

Eco Plus mode in the BMW iDrive 7.0 digital dials

The typeface is still the BMW family font, rendered fresher and dynamically for better legibility. It’s easy to read and we found it reassuring that the exact same Pantone of BMW red is used on the dials as well as switchgear, for that familiar BM vibe at nighttime.

On start-up, iDrive 7.0 displays a picture of your BMW in the exact spec, down to the colour and trim – a bit like a Tesla Model S. It can’t yet include the exact rims you’re riding on, but they’re working on making your avatar 100% realistic.

iDrive 7.0: its makers speak

We spoke to Armin Distler and Alina Sauer, responsible for the UX and the design, who told us more about iDrive 7.0. ‘We’ve been working on it since 2004,’ said Distler. ‘Our priorities were to make iDrive safe, easy to operate while driving and allow more personalisation.’

Sauer, who is responsible for the on-screen designs, added that it’s all about accessing quickly the information you need. ‘It’s much more dynamic now – we have been more selective with the information we show. In user testing, we found people used to iDrive like it but – crucially – even if you are new to the brand, it is logical and easy to learn.’

After a demonstration in a camouflaged next-gen X5, we’d be inclined to agree. Gesture control survives (and is improved, apparently) but was switched off for this demo. But the architecture looks sound and easy to navigate.

Whether you’ll like those angular dials is another matter though… Stay tuned to see it for real this summer.

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By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet