BMW teases an iDrive makeover at CES 2021

The operating system that has been at the heart of BMW cars since 2001 is getting a big change in time for the all-electric BMW iX


At the online Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2021 currently taking place, BMW announced that it will soon be launching its next-gen in-car display and operating system, which the brand claims will further move driver-vehicle interaction into a new digital and intelligent age.  

The next-gen iDrive will debut in the BMW iX, arriving this year

The system will make its debut in the upcoming BMW iX, which will go on sale worldwide in late 2021. Much more than just another new product, the iX is a car that effectively reboots BMW’s electric drive strategy and will set the pace for the brand’s immediate future.

The BMW Design team responsible for user experience and user interaction provided some glimpses behind the scenes of its development work in a short video clip, but the main takeaway is that the next-gen cars will be even more connected and have greater artificial intelligence capabilities. 

It’s rounded up in four minutes with a humorous video showing a 2001 BMW 7 Series talking to a new iX here

The new iDrive appears to work on a similar principle of what next-gen, top-flight smartphones can do, and while manufacturers have been making claims about how intelligent their in-car systems are, BMW is still a step ahead from our experience with using them. Little has been revealed about the capabilities of the iDrive system in the new iX, but there’s the promise of it being a fully-integrated collection of hardware and remotely update-able software. 

30 years ago, the idea of having computers in cars was in the realm of science-fiction. Then smartphones happened, and the business of miniaturising computer software and making them fit into vehicles and be useful there was just a hop away. 

One of the earliest mainstream builders of such tech was BMW when it unveiled the astonishing iDrive system in the 2001 BMW 7 Series sedans. Looking back, the automaker had actually instigated a paradigm shift in the way we interacted with our cars by reversing the trend of placing button-filled consoles in car interiors. 

The original iDrive was a pretty radical idea in its time

The original BMW iDrive distilled the whole entertainment, communications, and navigation package into a colour screen on the car’s dashboard and a rotary dial on the centre console. The system was one of the first that allowed users to control a large number of vehicle settings with a single operating tool. BMW touted it as a much safer way of operating accessories than jabbing a 20 separate buttons all over the console, and time has proved this to be right as others quickly latched on to the idea and similar operating systems started appearing in other cars.

The Heads-Up Display appeared in 2004, Google search integration happened in 2008, and third-party apps could be used with the system in 2012 before BMW launched its own BMW Connected app in 2016.

The next-gen iDrive in the iX is supposed to herald another paradigm shift, as the number of available functions in a car and their complexity continue to pile up. Digital and artificial intelligence has been introduced into cars, plus optimised sensors now allow them to analyse their surroundings in greater detail. As a result, elements of driving and parking can be automated to an increasing degree. And cloud-based services dip into a growing pool of real-time data. 

The iDrive Controller with integrated touch control appeared in 2010

This means that, in many situations, the vehicle actually has access to a greater amount of information than the driver has or can process immediately. One example pointed out is that the new iDrive can receive hazard warnings from other BMW vehicles, and make predictions on the availability of parking spaces at a destination. 

Like all digital devices, it’s unlikely that older BMWs will be able the to support the architecture of the new iDrive systems. However the brand has pledged that it will continue supporting current and previous update-able iDrive systems for the foreseeable future, so your current car will be up to date for many years yet.

about the author

Lionel Kong
An old hand from the bad old days of crazy COEs, the straight-shooting, ex-CarBuyer editor is back in the four-wheeled world. Rumours that he went to another country to start a Judas Priest tribute band are unfounded.