20 Years of iDrive: BMW’s Controversial, Groundbreaking System

Our own Ed Loh called it “an idea so simple, so elegant, yet so powerful it was to change the way the world interacted with the automobile.” Arthur St. Antoine said it was a “maddeningly convoluted ‘convenience’ … [that] can make a simple task like changing radio stations a catalyst for manic depression.” They’re both talking about BMW iDrive, the controversial dial controller that BMW introduced in the 2001. Twenty years later, iDrive continues to evolve—and it continues to attract controversy.

Why iDrive?

By the turn of the decade, it was becoming clear that we needed a simpler way to interact with our cars, particularly high-end, feature-packed models. In the long-term BMW 740iL we ran in ’95, we counted up to 100 buttons, switches and dials before we gave up. “The guiding principle of iDrive,” we wrote in our first look at the 2002 E65 7-Series, “is to simplify controls and orient them to the driver for safety and convenience.”

The idea behind BMW’s iDrive was to unify control of secondary-to-driving systems under a single, center-mounted controller. BMW knew it would be a controversial idea, all the more so because it was debuting in a controversial car. The fourth-generation E65 7 Series, styled by Chris Bangle, was a broad visual departure from the previous 7, and BMW knew full well that both the car and the dial would evoke some ire.

“If you want to set new standards, you must be prepared to break new ground,” Burkhard Goeschel of BMW’s Board of Management told our sister publication Automobile at the time. “We felt that a radically different shape and a radically different ergonomic concept were compulsory to leapfrog the competition. It may take a little time to get used to the iDrive system’s one-knob-does-it-all approach, but once you get the hang of it, the system is more rewarding than a zillion buttons.”

Too much with too little?

Turns out that getting the hang of iDrive was the problem. The first iteration of the interface consisted solely of the dial, which the user could turn, slide, and be push downward to make a selection on the center-screen menu. One had to slide the dial in a given direction to access a select a group of functions, then turn and click to navigate through a complicated set of menus. Critics complained iDrive was too complex and required the driver to stare at the screen rather than the road. Even BMW owners, who have far more time than reviewers to learn the system, cited the steep learning curve.

It didn’t take BMW long to realize it had created the most-hated interface in the automotive universe, and it wasn’t long before iDrive began to change. For the 2004 5-Series and 2005 7-Series, BMW added two buttons near the iDrive dial and simplified the menu system. “The four major menus are color coded for easier navigation,” we explained in our first drive of the 2005 750i, “and once you’ve pushed the iDrive knob toward one of the compass points to access a certain menu, all subsequent commands are executing by turning and pressing the knob—far simpler than the previous combo of sliding, twisting and pushing. Audi’s MMI still seems more intuitive, but this is a definite improvement in user-friendliness.”

iDrive was improved, but still not intuitive. In a comparison of the 2004 BMW 545i and the new-for-2005 Cadillac STS, we wrote, “Even in a revised, easier-to-use version, iDrive still confounded us. Whereas everyone agreed that the intent of cleaning up the cabin and reducing the number of control buttons was a noble one, the execution requires too many keystrokes to perform simple tasks, like changing a radio station. By forcing the driver to sift through layers of choices, it diverts his attention from what he should be concentrating on—driving a great-handling car. One writer concluded, ‘Maybe the answer is less techno-garbage people never asked for in the first place. ‘”

iDrive simplifies by adding complexity

With the debut of the 2009 F01 7-Series, BMW introduced a new iDrive interface, one that attempted to simplify its operation by bringing back some of the complexity it was meant to eliminate. Along with the dial, the system now had shortcut buttons to access stereo, phone, and navigation menus, plus a much-needed a “back” button. The new screen was wider and had a completely revamped menu system. Meanwhile, the center stack was once adorned with conventional stereo controls, including a volume knob.

“BMW’s ergonomic engineers have managed to make iDrive an easier system to learn and use,” we wrote in our first drive of the 2009 7 Series. “iDrive is still not our favorite way to negotiate our way around a car’s systems, but we could live with it.” Ed Loh’s February 2009 column put it more succinctly: “Breaking news—iDrive no longer sucks.” Between the hundred-plus buttons of the E38 and the single dial of the E65, BMW seemed to have found an acceptable middle ground.

By this time the battle between dial controllers and versus touch screens was well established. Mercedes’ COMAND and Audi’s Multi Media Interface, or MMI, showed the German preference for both dials and capitalization. Asian luxury brands leaned towards touch-screens, and some, like Infiniti, used both. BMW continued to refine iDrive, and by 2012, with the new 535i in for its first test, we deigned to call the latest and greatest version “in fact quite easy to use, thank you very much.” When we drove the high-end models from the 2013 7-Series lineup, for the first time, we had nice things to say about iDrive: “More bells and whistles… faster processor… way better looking graphics.”

iDrive today and tomorrow

BMW added the iDrive Touch controller in 2014, allowing users to trace letters on the surface of the dial in a manner similar to Audi’s MMI. But the next big leap came in 2016, when BMW crossed to the dark side and fitted the system with a touch screen, giving drivers an alternate way to command iDrive. Also new: Gesture control, with which it was possible to manipulate the infotainment system by moving your hands in ways that would get you punched in Europe and admitted to a gang in San Quentin.

At the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show—held virtually, because 2020—BMW teased the next-generation of iDrive, called iDrive 8.0, in a rather bizarre video that compared it with the first-gen system. When the production version of the electric iX goes on sale, buyers will use a new context-sensitive generation of iDrive that makes better use of voice and gesture control. As with Mercedes’ MBUX-based Hyperscreen, it appears that iDrive 8.0 will be context-sensitive, with the capability to store personal profiles and anticipate needs. For iDrive traditionalists—and after twenty years, we have to imagine such people do exist—the dial controller remains.

Perhaps future versions of iDrive won’t need the dial at all. And then what will we have to complain about?

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