We don't normally think of ourselves as 'using' a car - we drive it. However, the distinction blurs more and more now as we fit advanced control systems, computer features, screens and buttons. The modern driver of a car such as the Mercedes S Class is surrounded by a plethora of buttons (some 50 in total and more in the higher end models) controlling everything from seat adjustment to navigation system. The result is the ability for a driver to become 'task laden' - too busy to pay attention to the road.
In order to deal with increasing feature sets car manufacturers have tried a variety of solutions including buttons on the steering wheel, extra stalks on the steering column and even 3 Dimensional heads-up displays projected onto the windscreen. The BMW system uses a controller between the front seats (where a gear stick is traditionally located) to access all controls and a large Multifunction Display Screen.
BMW states that the iDrive system was developed in partnership with Immersion Technologies a San Francisco based company that specialises in haptic (the science of touch) systems. Immersion was one the developers of force feedback systems for joysticks and the creator of the Logitech force feedback system feel-feel. The devices are manufactured for BMW by Alps who manufacture pointing devices, mice and track pads for OEM manufacturers. The concept is to replace all the dials and switches inside the car with one central easy to use device - but to ensure that drivers aren't distracted from the road whilst changing settings there needs to be a way for the person to use it intuitively and to know they have hit the right setting. Enter iDrive.
At the heart of the system is the controller in the centre console, looking something like the volume button on an expensive stereo or an oversized bottle cap. It sits exactly where your hand would normally fall for the gearstick .In use the iDrive is designed to give the feel of a comforting click as you toggle between radio stations or the firm sensation of hitting a wall as you reach the end point of a climate-control slider. The controller can be pushed down like a knob, turned left or right like a dial, and moved in any of eight compass-point directions to select entertainment, navigation or other settings. The dashboard screen shows your options and confirms your choices. In effect the system is a force feedback joystick for your car. The operating system is a modified Windows CE implementation developed by Siemens (custom interface running on CE Internals) which in theory would make this an extensible platform for Siemens to use in other vehicle applications, which could mean more IDrive type systems coming your way in the next few years.
Other Changes to the conventional cabin include
- The Gearstick - Now steering column mounted it controls a steptronic (semi automatic) gearbox doing away with a traditional H pattern shift column
- The Steering Column - Becomes an integrated part of iDrive with control buttons for the gearbox and entertainment systems
- The key - gone and replaced with a computerised remote control type module which slots into a special slot and the engine is then started with a button
- An electronic handbrake - no more mechanical only systems - the handbrake is activated by pushing a dashboard button
- Active and Passive control systems - A combination of stability controls, driving aids and intelligent monitors designed to enhance braking and stability in all driving conditions - the BMW system combines the standard Stability control, ABS, Traction control and other features into an integrated package with the ability for a driver to programme his or her own settings and save the presets - thus adjustments can be made to suit their driving style in a given situation
- Active Cruise Control - A BMW developed cruise control system, which uses radar to monitor speed of vehicles travelling in front and to the side of the car, and regulates speed accordingly
- Intelligent Assist - Phone home for breakdowns and service - the car communicates with BMW and passes information on issues and service required. If a breakdown occurs the car phones home
- BMW Mobile Internet - Internet, email, traffic updates and live news data delivered via wireless (Blue tooth appears to be the chosen protocol) to the car
How well the technology will work in practice remains to be seen but one question that needs to be asked is what impact will all of these toys have on the way a driver functions? Driving is a learned skill and one that becomes almost instinct, a driver reacts in the way they have been trained to do so to a given situation. But what load will be placed on the driver who is trying to drive on a freeway at the same time they are setting the climate control or entering a destination into the navigation system?
Like any system this one has a learning curve; and in this case it can be steep, as a number of reviewers have pointed out already.
Unfamiliar design of important controls compels reorientation to new world of driving. Gearshift, for example, is a small electric flipper with spring-back movement and push/pull activation that's not self-evident. Anything more than simplest climate and audio adjustments forces interaction with iDrive. It accesses amazing range of communications, navigation, and entertainment tools; even adjusts suspension firmness and deactivates antiskid control. But learning its ways and coordinating its joystick movement while driving takes hours of practice.
Quoted From the Auto Consumer Guide Review
In a normal situation learning a new system can be frustrating but not dangerous. A pilot transitioning to a new plane undergoes comprehensive training before flying it. The key question will be 'Does iDrive actually enhance safety?'. The concept of designing an interface is to provide an intuitive system that a user is comfortable using and can learn easily. In a car this means get in and drive away, but what challenges will a transition pose as we move driving into new areas?
Mobile phones, in-car stereo systems and other technologies are already being blamed for accidents and a loss of driver concentration. Studies across the world have shown that mobile phones in cars pose a considerable distraction risk for drivers. A study by the US National Safety Council on Does Cell Phone Conversation Impair Driving Performance? Concluded
conversing on either a hand-held or hands-free cell phone led to significant decrements in simulated driving performance. We suggest that the cellular phone use disrupts performance by diverting attention to an engaging cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving.
So the question has to be if cell phones are distracting by their presence what effect will a system as complex as iDrive have on drivers ? The iDrive is designed to be transparent but is a system that requires a learning curve of several hours transparent ? Examine the way in which drivers around you on the road play with climate control and stereo settings to see the effect gadgets can sometimes have on driving. In theory a driver who learns the system will then not be distracted by that system but as this has not been tested it is hard to quantify in practice. Simply choosing a selection might involve 6 or 7 different movements alone and this provides the option for a driver to lose concentration at a critical moment.
BMW isn't alone in bringing this type of technology to the market; SAAB, Audi and Ford have shown similar systems in car shows, however BMW are first to produce a working product for sale. In addition, other technologies are coming to change the way our cars function and look even more. Mercedes expects to have a fully drive by wire system in the 2005 C Class model year, thus removing the mechanical linkages for steering and control, and they fully expect a concept car using a joystick like controller for steering around the same time. The advantages of a drive by wire system include an increase in safety by totally separating the drive bay from the vehicle (in collisions the steering column must collapse to avoid a driver being impaled or trapped) and increased cabin room and dimensions - it can also mean smaller more cost effective vehicles with very non traditional layouts and the end of the need for expensive separate chassis design programs for left and right hand drive - a drive by wire system would be a bolt in pod making it easy to change to right hand drive or vice versa.
Whether consumers will adjust to these technologies easily is something hard to quantify - fly by wire first appeared in aircraft over 10 years ago but the concept of a joystick was nothing new and the movement simply put the control column on the side of the cockpit rather than in the centre. As already pointed out a pilot also undergoes considerable training before being rated to fly a new aircraft and has the advantage of sophisticated navigation, control and system aids and a second pair of hands. In a car that's not really an option so the transition may be somewhat more dangerous.
Seen in that light the BMW system may be the first step in the direction of changing the way we think about and use our cars by changing the way we work with and communicate with them. The next step, according to BMW, is fitting voice activated systems (expected in the next 12-18 months) to remove the need for a controller altogether and the development of efficient CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) systems which mean the gear stick could disappear altogether. What effect this will have on safety and whether drivers will use a new interface remains to be seen.
(Honda use a version CVT in their Insight hybrid car and a good overview of how it works can be found on this page)
What does this mean for the average person who finds luxury automobiles like the $70K BMW 7 Series and the $72--155K Mercedes models unattainable?. The rapid pace of development in automotive systems has seen a very rapid transition of new technology into consumer level vehicles; for example technologies like ABS, SRS, Traction Control, Variable Valve Timing, Air Bags, Climate Control and more all started as developments in luxury vehicles and have moved into the consumer sector.
Companies like OEM manufacturer Visteon are already working on advanced technologies like night vision systems, Head up displays, radar and voice control systems for the next generation of vehicles. Visteon already supply components to a range of companies including Ford, GM, Chrysler, Jaguar, Volvo, Opel, Mercedes, and Renault. In short the next generation technology being developed today may be with us sooner that we thought - Audi and Ford have both indicated they expect to see this sort of technology in consumer cars within the next 3 years.
I only know one thing. When I see a new 7-Series coming towards me on the road I will be hoping that the driver is paying attention to the road and not still learning how to use the iDrive or attempting to change the stereo settings.