Vehicle manufacturers are dashing headlong toward entirely digital cockpits; screens are growing ever larger – Continental for example has just secured orders for its first pillar-to-pillar display – and touchscreen interfaces are a must have.
However, having recently sampled two of BMW’s flagship models, the M8 Competition Gran Coupe and M3 Competition, both of which feature its current iDrive system (with a newer version due to come on stream in the iX and i4 models this year), my personal feeling is that there is still a place for the traditional button.
For those not familiar with BMW’s system, it provides the driver with a triumvirate of means to interact with the vehicle’s systems: the well-established iDrive rotary control, augmented with other function buttons on the center console and steering wheel; touch control on the central 10.25in screen, and via voice command.
For now, we will ignore the voice recognition system, which did not have a fair chance to learn my approximation of the Queen’s English – it kept trying to take me to Leipzig instead of a country pub – and instead, focus on the other input methods. My conclusion was that having the option to use a combination of physical buttons and a touch interface provided the ideal balance between usability when driving and (when stationary) setting up the car’s myriad systems.
For example, the climate control functions are handled by a row of pleasingly tactile buttons directly below the central air vents, each clearly labelled, with a discrete display showing the AC mode. In no time at all, muscle memory allowed me to adjust these settings without taking my eyes off the road.
The same applied to the selection of controls arrayed around the rotary controller on the center console. On the M8, these include a home, media, park assist and nav button, which once again could be found by feel after a short acclimatization. The result was that most regular tasks could be undertaken with a minimum of distraction for the driver.
While lack of distraction is important regardless of vehicle, in the case of the M8 it was particularly welcome. At 50mm shy of 2m in width, and with 625bhp on tap (giving a 0-60mph time of just over three seconds), it required a considerable degree of concentration to pilot around the narrow country lanes that constitute the road network of West Sussex (UK).
This is not to say there is anything wrong with BMW’s touchscreen, which is both clear and responsive. For example, when it came to fine-tuning the M8’s variety of driving modes, which facilitate adjustment of damper, steering, engine, transmission and braking characteristics, the touchscreen removed the tedious need to scroll from one option to the next using the rotary control.
The same applied to setting up various media inputs, be that logging in to the inbuilt Spotify app, or persuading my phone to stream a Paddington Bear audio book via YouTube for my daughter. (I’m not sure it was fully appreciated that she was hearing the story in its full glory through B&W diamond tweeters!).
Anecdotally, talking to a friend who recently purchased a Volvo V60, which has a heavier bias toward screen-based control, he bemoaned the lack of physical buttons for oft used tasks such as climate control. There is an argument that with the dominance of smartphones, the swipe and tap control method is now ingrained, but equally there is good reason we have laws forbidding the use of such devices while driving.
From an HMI perspective, it seems BMW has found a balance between analog and touch inputs, and importantly, it gives users the flexibility to find their own ideal interface combination. The iDrive is not flawless, there are doubtless some functions that most drivers will never find buried deep in a sub menu, but at least it lets you complete regular tasks with a minimum of hassle. It will be interesting to see whether BMW’s newest iDrive offering will maintain this happy medium.