The past, present and 5G future of BMW's iconic iDrive

We speak with BMW's Frank Weber about the origin of the company's in-car infotainment system 20 years ago, and what we can expect to see in iDrive 8.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
4 min read

Frank Weber inspects his iX squad before battle.


BMW's iDrive communications and entertainment system turns 20 this year, a remarkable achievement given how many half-baked, in-dash competitors have been put out to pasture in that time. In just the last five years we've seen the rise of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the increasing ubiquity of touchscreens and the influx of active data connections, so it's amazing how many concepts put forth in that first generation of iDrive are still at play in the current version.

Yet there's a major rethink coming for what will be iDrive 8, previewed with the release of last year's BMW iX concept. Last week, I had a chance to sit down with BMW's Frank Weber to talk about the past and future of the venerable system. Interestingly, the original iDrive grew from an organizational foundation.

"Twenty years ago, BMW recognized that the future is in digital, and what is interesting is organizationally, the guys that developed interiors were also responsible for all the electric content," Weber said. "So we learned that the experience within the interior of the vehicle, that how you interact with the vehicle, that interior and electrical content have to become one."

iDrive, then, was a stab at surfacing a car's electrical subsystems in an intuitive, aesthetically pleasing way. Like the car it launched in, the 2002 BMW 7 Series, it was bold but not entirely successful. Clumsy and littered with hidden submenus and nuances, journalist Georg Kacher, writing for Automobile, called it "a true test of one's patience." 

BMW iX is the Bavarian automaker's future

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Regardless, the fundamental idea was so sound that the same basic rotary interface will live on in the upcoming flavor of iDrive 8, albeit with some significant changes. What sorts of changes? Well, for starters, how do you feel about crystals? 

"In a world that is more virtual, more digital, people are longing for real interactions," Weber said. Yes, as most manufacturers are eschewing physical controls for capacitive screens, BMW is doubling down on premium materials for those remaining touch points. Tactility matters, Weber said. "Yes, there will be more speech, but for things that have more physical contact, it is very important."

Get ready to spend a lot more time talking to your BMW, too. "We have made the man-machine interface much more human. Voice control is working now very well, very fast," Weber said. 

While voice is more of a focus, gesture control will not be -- though it isn't going away entirely. BMW made waves by letting drivers adjust the volume by twirling a finger, or dismiss a call with a wave of a hand. These gestures are far from universally loved, but Weber says they still have a place for some tasks. 

"For example, accepting calls or finishing calls, shifting to the next song, these are very simple things," he said. "The volume we did, that is very impressive. It makes an impression, but it is already too complicated in a certain sense. When it becomes too complicated, [drivers] don't use it."

Likewise, don't expect to see any major leaps forward for augmented reality in iDrive 8. Weber referenced the company's head-up displays as providing a taste of that functionality, but he believes that AR can provide an unnecessary distraction when layered too heavily. 


The future is crystals.


Powering all this is a new system of chips that BMW calls Super Brains. Five of these silicon wafers replace upwards of 100 discrete processors in previous BMWs, vastly simplifying the internal architecture of the car and, presumably, boosting performance as well. Weber declined to provide any further details on the composition or sourcing of these chips, but hopefully his company can manage a stable supply.

5G will also be onboard to boost the wireless performance of the next generation of cars, giving a 40-times increase in bandwidth. This can only help over-the-air updates go more smoothly, because you know those files aren't getting any smaller.

More importantly, though, advanced connectivity will help tie together BMW's network of vehicles. "We are using the entire BMW fleet as an input on when you make decisions on route, on navigation, on speed, on traffic, on everything," Weber said. "We have the largest connected fleet in the world."

It's a far cry from the advanced, brand-agnostic, vehicle-to-vehicle networks we've been waiting on for decades, but it's at least a start. And, Weber says, it'll all be locked behind a comprehensive security system. "At BMW we feel that data privacy, data security, is part of your premium promise in a vehicle."

With so much focus on crash safety in vehicles, it is of course encouraging to hear a similar emphasis placed upon both the safety and sanctity of your data. It sounds like an almost Apple-like approach to customer data, but don't worry: Google's Android Auto will still be supported in iDrive 8. CarPlay will be, too. In fact, they'll be better integrated than ever, made easier to get into and out of so that you can enjoy everything else BMW's system has to offer, all waiting for you on the other end of a little, crystal disc.

Update, 10:22 a.m. Eastern: Removed a reference to gaze and voice control being linked. A BMW representative reached out to confirm iDrive 8 will not combine inputs from these systems.