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BMW iDrive 8 flexes 5G smarts, enhanced voice control and oodles of tech

The new infotainment system is more like a complete makeover for BMW's digital interface, and it's coming first to its new EVs.

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- 03:55

The future's here.

BMW

BMW rang in a new era for its in-car infotainment and connectivity technologies on Monday with the arrival of iDrive 8. The latest iteration of the well-known technology isn't just the same old system with a new number attached to it, though. It really reads like a comprehensive rethink of how drivers interact with their cars, and it grows much smarter in the process.

Foremost, we won't see iDrive 8 reach any of BMW's current cars. Instead, the new system will debut with the upcoming iX electric SUV, and the i4 electric sedan. Clearly, the automaker wants to make a splash with its newest EVs. The big improvements, aside from the massive overhaul to the graphics and how drivers (and passengers) interact with the screen, are the focus on voice controls with a much more intelligent personal assistant, and onboard support for 5G connectivity. BMW said it will be the first premium carmaker to offer 5G when the iX launches.

Let's start with the assistant, since it handles so much of the car's functions now. Drivers can choose to operate everything via the digital cluster ahead of them, measuring 12.3 inches, or on the 14.9-inch display to the driver's right. It's actually one, grouped curved display broken into parts that we'll likely see proliferate across future BMWs, and it sure looks sleek in photos. 

The main controller is familiar.

BMW

At any point you can ask the BMW assistant using normal language, and it now features a "face" when summoned, and also pays attention to numerous nonverbal cues the automaker baked in to help the tech feel more human. After you call out its wake phrase (totally customizable, by the way) the system recognizes if the driver or passenger requested it. If it was the driver, the assistant appears ahead of them on the screen; the assistant shows up on the right hand side of the infotainment screen if the passenger wakes it.

Like other smart infotainment systems, BMW's more educated assistant should also recognize far more natural speech. For example, saying, "My feet are cold," will tell the assistant to bump up the heat for the floor area specifically for whichever passenger requested it. Everything from climate control, lighting, opening windows, activating sun shades and switching between driver modes is possible.

BMW said iDrive 8's support for over-the-air updates will also allow it to funnel more intelligence and features to the assistant over time. But, even without it, the system will benefit from an overhauled BMW ID system. Owners can track their preferences with an ID that follows them, secured with a PIN, to access personalized settings for their car. All of the personalization will live in a soon-to-come My BMW app for smartphones that will replace the current Connected app owners currently use. 

My BMW should be far more seamless when it comes to sorting out preferences for the car, thanks to iDrive 8's beefed-up smarts. This includes what it calls "Great Entrance Moments" to greet owners as they approach from even 10 feet away. Headlight and taillight patterns will emit various cues, interior lighting will fall in all the right places and once they're within five feet, the car will welcome the driver by rolling out a digital "carpet" to show them the way towards the entrance. Wild stuff.

The intelligence doesn't stop at neat welcome gestures and voice control, though. BMW thoughtfully integrated numerous driving modes, sorted under a system called My Modes, that can entirely rearrange the digital cluster based on a driver's mood, driving style and more. At launch, there will be 10 parameters a mode looks at to tweak the tech just right for an owner. Along the way, widgets and various screen layouts let drivers access the functions and features they want more quickly, BMW said.

The system also integrates BMW Maps and the BMW Cloud to prioritize how drivers want their navigation system to function, and it'll show owners available parking, if they want. More modes and their associated features will roll out with time, via OTA updates. As for 5G connectivity, BMW said future cars with iDrive 8 will be ready to take full advantage of 5G with HD-quality streaming available for passengers, and the ability to send system data to the cloud in "milliseconds," which should create a snappier iDrive system anytime a driver tasks it with something. And don't worry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are fully supported and integrated with iDrive 8.

We'll get our first real look at iDrive 8 and all its nifty features when BMW reveals the production i4 later this year. The iX is on deck for launch in 2022.