BMW Shows Off Smarter, More Autonomous iDrive Virtual Assistant at CES

BMW cars are going to be smarter and more autonomous than ever when the next iteration of the iDrive operating system arrives later this year. The carmaker previewed what is coming at the virtual CES conference this week, while highlighting iDrive’s two decades of development since BMW’s 7 Series rolled out in 2001.

iDrive 2021

The new and improved iDrive is supposed to be safer and easier to use because the car has more information and can understand what it means in context faster than the driver. This is a “paradigm shift,” according to BMW, because iDrive absorbs data from sensors in the car and cloud-based servers, analyzing it all and rapidly making decisions that the driver supposedly would if they had the same information. The car might get hazard warnings from other BMWs, the company suggested, or it could use data from those cars to predict if and where there will be parking at the destination plugged into the navigation system.

“The next generation of BMW iDrive takes the burgeoning relationship between a BMW and its driver to a new level,” BMW explained in a blog post. “Digital intelligence has been introduced into cars, optimized sensors now allowing them to perceive and analyze their surroundings. As a result, elements of driving and parking can be automated to an increasing degree.”

iDrive doesn’t ignore the driver, of course. The personal voice assistant added back in 2018 is still there and will be updated with more human responses and conversational abilities. The voice AI is integrated into the screens in the car, and the long-standing iDrive control knob in the central console has survived the revamp yet again. The AI will also use cameras in the car to determine where the driver is looking, suggesting they could control the car by glancing in the right direction.

Smart Cars

Voice is only a part of iDrive, but it’s become a central interface between the car and the driver. BMW has long used a hybrid approach to voice assistants, with its own embedded voice assistant as well as the option to use others. The company started integrating Google Assistant in 2017, even before launching its own brand, while Alexa became an option in 2018. BMW has been clear about preferring giving multiple choices to customers, even signing on to Amazon’s Voice Interoperability Initiative last year.

BMW has had a consistent interest in voice and AI technology developed by third parties, with its voice assistant built in partnership with Cerence (then still Nuance). BMW was the first to adopt the driver-customized wake word feature created by automotive AI developer Cerence last year. The tool gives drivers the option to replace the default ”Hey BMW” that activates the Intelligent Personal Assistant with whatever they wish. The interest extends to investment as well, with BMW i Ventures has previously invested in audio tech developer DSP Concepts.


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