The following article is presented without permission. It appeared in the November 2002 issue of Popular Science and is authored by Contributing Editor Stephan Wilkinson
As I bend toward the sink of the Munich hotel bathroom to rinse my face, the arching swan-neck spigot smotes me square in the forehead. I'd already scalded myself in a shower modulated by an aerospace-grade, color-coded contraption marked in tiny Centigrade numerals. That was after I finally located the utterly counterintuitive water tap in the first place and then flooded the bathroom floor with a flexible-hosed nozzle that found every gap in the sharp-edged chrome-and-glass tub door. I wanted to shake Germany by the shoulders and say, "Do the words shower curtain mean anything to you?" Through my personal pain, though, I've gained a deeper understanding of the German pursuit of high-style technology, in which precision and complication sometimes trump good old utility.
Which is why I am in Munich in the first place. When it introduced its iDrive system to American and U.K. drivers earlier this year in the $70,000 flagship 7 Series sedan, BMW took an expensive and controversial step toward re-engineering and restyling the automobile cockpit. Everybody, including POPULAR SCIENCE, had praised the car but used the occasion to take potshots at Version 1.0 of the iDrive system, complaining that it was, well, rather like that Munich bathroom.
Yet BMW's mission is important: to save the complex modern car from turning into a rolling information appliance, to simplify and heighten the driving experience. iDrive offers a taste of the future of automotive interior design: a strictly delineated driver-hugging cockpit, a high-visibility data screen, and a single easily manipulated data-and-command input device. BMW will introduce modified versions of iDrive in the rest of its line, and other luxury and leading-tech car companies, like Audi and Mercedes, are developing competitive systems.
BMW chose to make this radical move because by 1994, when work began, a 7 Series sedan had 35 different gauges and indicator lights and a staggering 66 manual controls. "There has always been a trend toward more controls," iDrive interface engineer Hermann Kuenzner tells me in Munich. "We need an indicator for this, we need a control for that. Too many of the buttons in the driver area were of minor importance, and it was time to make a new start." iDrive decreases the number of controls and indicators in what Kuenzner calls "the driving zone" to a level very close to that of the 1952 BMW, which had 16 controls and 11 indicators; the 2002 745i has 29 and 17, respectively, according to BMW's own tally -- yet it's of course a vastly more complex machine.
The heart of iDrive is a big, multimodal joystick/knob on the 74Si's center console, where the gear selector used to live. With a push, turn, or shove, this automotive supermouse controls 700 functions, which are displayed in menus on the screen above. Most features that 7 Series drivers had previously selected and modulated via switches, knobs, sliders, pushbuttons, and stalks are now operated by the knob.
Overcomplication is, of course, the bane of user-friendliness, and no friend to driver safety. As cars and systems have become more complex, and more subject to electronic and computer control, the cockpit array has begun to resemble that found in an old jet, this even as jet cockpits have evolved toward simpler designs with a minimum of clear, graphic displays, plus-in the case of fighter cockpits-intuitive finger-tip controls for both hands. At the same time, cars retain an array of ego-gratifying but archaic gauges and instruments, the functions of most of which-oil pressure low, brake on, engine redlining could be assimilated into a single, more effective warning-light display (in a complex jet aircraft, such an indicator is called a master caution light).
Overcomplication is born of lazy thinking, then raised to a new level by marketing instinct: New features and buttons dress up appliances and machines like lights on a Times Square billboard. Cheap computer chips breed wacky options: Nobody asks why anybody who simply wants to defrost a hamburger patty would need to program a microwave oven for a month in advance. Nor do they ask why hundreds of city halls clutter the database of every self-respecting car GPS system. In-car GPS, cellphone, and climate-control systems have become particularly complicated over the years.
The purpose of iDrive is to keep more of the driver's brain-bandwidth devoted to the job of driving. As a cognitive theorist working on U.S. Navy jet cockpits wrote in 1999, "It is crucial for the users to directly interact with the task domains, not the interfaces mediating the systems." Translation: The pilot or driver should be operating the machine, not struggling with the system.
After almost a year on the market, does iDrive deliver? To find out; I first flew not east to Germany, but west to California, and Jef Raskin.
Jef Raskin has spent most of his adult life making computers easier to deal with. He created the first PC that was built from the interface out, Apple's Macintosh, and contributed many of the features of today's GUIs the "gooeys," Or graphical user interfaces, with their now-familiar mouse, click-and-drag, and desktop-and-icons concepts that released computer users from the need to memorize strange, unintuitive command strings to call up programs or actions. Raskin is a go-to guy when it comes to interface design, and so, with BMW's help, I put him into the iDrive-powered 745i sedan for a couple of days, then joined him as a passenger.
Raskin, it turns out, is not a happy camper. We've climbed into the car and fired it up, and the cabin fills with a high-pitched beeping. Parking brake on? Seatbelts off? Engine fire? Eject? Nope. It's the park distance monitor in the front bumper telling us the car is smack up against some shrubbery in the driveway of Raskin's rustic Pacifica, California, home. As Raskin backs away from the bushes, the monitor continues to beep, though at a diminishing pace. "How hard could it be," Raskin asks, "to program the system to know that you're starting up from where you previously parked and don't need the proximity warning? And that you're unparking and backing away from an obstacle, and that there's no point in giving you diminishing warnings?"
Clearly we have a tough customer here. Raskin does like the fact that BMW has moved the 7 Series gear selector to the steering column to make room for the big iDrive knob on the central console, and that the nobtrusive shifter is little more than a toggle switch with three positions-D, N, and R. "They've finally admitted that an automatic transmission can operate automatically, and it's about time. But they should have gone one step further and eliminated N. There's no reason that the car can't automatically go into neutral whenever you stop."
As we travel down Highway I, I throw Raskin a problem. "What would you do right now with the iDrive to tune the radio to . . . well, let's say a National Public Radio station?" The iDrive knob must first be manipulated into the entertainment menu (one of eight modes, which include Navigation, Communication, Car Data, and Settings), then worked around that menu, into FM or AM mode, and then into manual-tuning mode with a series of twists and clicks to finally find the station.
Admittedly, Raskin has had the car only two days, but he's perused the 216-page owner's manual as only a computer geek who enjoys reading documentation can. The radio assignment does not produce an easy, automatic response with the iDrive knob. (During my visitto BMW's design center in Munich, BMW PR
man Alfred Broede will tell me, "I don't know any [iDrive owner] who used their manual. Most people play with the system a little bit, they don't read the book with hundreds of pages. They learn it very easily by playing with it.")
"OK, I'd pull over," Raskin says, which he does, whacking the big 745i across a pothole in the weedy turnout that suddenly appears. "But this is where you have to use a menu, and menus are a big mistake, because you have to look at them." With some fiddling-a lot more than on a conventional radio---he finds the FM band and locates the station. (Much later I discover a discrete knob and button on the dash that allows smooth station scanning, begging the question of who would use the multimode iDrive knob for tuning at all.)
"This radio selection could be easier," Hermann Kuenzner will later admit. "We know that in the United States, AM and FM are both important functions. In Europe, we have AM, but nobody listens to it."
Raskin attacks the premise: "Why distinguish between AM and FM? You don't care what the frequency band is, you want this station Or that station. The difference between AM and FM is a holdover from a previous era, when you had to actually physically reconfigure the radio to get one or the other.
Next assignment: Program in my San Francisco hote) as it navigation-system destination. Raskin pulls over again, fiddles with the iDrive knob, and a menu comes up on the screen. Naturally, the wrong menu. "OK, now we've got to get out of this;' he says.
He turns to his 17-year-old son in the backseat, just as you or I would if we traveled with a computer-savvy teenager. "Aza, how do I get out?" Hit return, Aza says.
There's more discussion as Raskin begins to sweat a bit. Hit destination, star, whatever. Hit that top button and tell the voice recognition system, "guidance on." For some reason the system doesn't recognize the command. "Cancel," Raskin says. (iDrive includes a voice recognition system for many commands as an alternative to the iDrive knob, but software remains imperfect and requires the user to remember commands like "destination input" and "route guidance on." This can arguably require more cognitive resources than does moving a controller, especially if the system doesn't understand what you're asking the first time,as is sometimes the case with the BMW: A rolling car can be hard of hearing.)
Finally, using the iDrive knob, we reach a point where Raskin can begin to spell out S . . . A . . . N . . . by clicking on individual letters and then searching through a list of destinations. Unfortunately, the number of California towns and cities named for Saint-whatever is Jong, and more tedious iDrivescrolling is necessary. Is this a satisfactory system, I ask Raskin? "If this were my car, I'd say forget it, go read a roadmap. There's no reason they couldn't use the same simple interface they have on MapQuest, where I just type in the address and it gives directions to me." Should the car have a keyboard, to make that possible? "Why not?" he asks, To illustrate, he mock-types on the flat, easily accessible surface atop the steering column.
BMW has retained an analog climate-control panel in the 74Si, below the iDrive display screen, and Raskin approves. "For many things, digital controls area nuisance," heavers. He also likes the high position of the iDrive screen, which is directly abeam the main instrument cluster. "The display is clear and easy to read, and you can see at a glance where you are if a map isup.l don't think it's a distraction."
He's not so sanguine about the rest of the iDrive interface, however. "There are too many menus. You should be able to use an interface habitually, the way you do the brake and the accelerator, which never change their positions or functions. An interface user's gesture or motion should elicit the same response every time. Turning the iDrive knob shouldn't mean different things in different modes. You shouldn't need to stop and ask, 'What mode is this thing in right now?' You can never train a person to not make mistakes when there are modes."
Raskin's final judgment of iDrive, as we pull back into his driveway: "It's somewhere between silly and wonderful. It's more a step sideways than a step forward-a few good ideas,a few good features, and a whole bunch of bad implementation." He particularly likes the new 74Si's automatic parking brake, which sets itself firmly when the ignition is switched off. Unfortunately, the car's default settings disable the feature, which must be re-enabled every time the engine is started. "I forgot to turn it back on yesterday and began to step out of the car on a steep slope assuming it was active," Raskin says. "I made a 'mode mistake' that could have been the end of my iDrive experience right there."
If obese passengers are required to buy two airline seats, BMW engineer Hermann Kuenzner should be charged for two rows: He's beanpole-skinny but more than 7 feet tall, with legs nearly as long as a BMW Mini's wheelbase. This says volumes about the superb driver's accommodations in the new 745i, because Kuenzner spent many hours in the caras the director of the group of five engineers and designers who developed the interface for the iDrive system.
"We went to British Aerospace to see the Eurofighter," Kuenzner says. "They are designing the cockpit strictly to ergonomic guidelines. They have seven displays, because this is the most that a pilot can hold in his mind. We have eight menus," he laughs, "because we think our customers are more intelligent [than pilots]."
You might think that the solution to having a potentially distracting display screen in a car would be to mount it down low, out of the way. Kuenzner and his group disagree, and the result is the iDrive's nearly line-of-sight screen Just to the right of the driver's instrument cluster. "If you position the screen in this area," Kuenzner explains, "you are always aware of it in your peripheral vision,even if you are looking at the speedometer." And if the driver turns a bit to the right to look at the screen, that's the direction from which most road hazards appear.
Why not put the screen dead ahead, in place of the speedo and tachometer? A speed readout could be provided by a small digital display, perhaps a head-up hologram. A tach is extra baggage in an automatic transmission luxury car.
"OK, you don't need the tachometer, but it is part of the sporty character of the BMW," Kuenzner admits. "But for the speedometer, there's always an extra little calculation that you have to do when you see only a digital readout. 'I'm driving 72. Is that higher or lower than 60? How much higher?'"
Why not simply make the iDrive system simpler? Does a driver really need 700 computer-controlled functions? Kuenzner laughs. "The people who designed the interface, we didn't need 700 functions. We always discussed whether we need this function or that function, because it would have made it for us much easier to build a simpler system. But OK, if our marketing department says we need it, we design it in."
When I'd asked Jef Raskin if competition would engender cleaner, simpler, mote user-friendly iDrive-type systems from Audi, Mercedes, and invitably the Japanese, he laughed. "Oh, no. It'll get worse. Marketers are features-'driven people. It's true in the personal computer industry. Computers are harder to use than ever."
Yet iDrive is not simply a luxobarge conceit. BMW will likely trickle some of its capabilities down to 5 and 3 Series sedans. The system will be adaptable to BMWs with manual transmissions, and certainly the company's continuing development of paddle-shifted sequential manual transmissions could dovetail nicely with iDrive installations.
Some have complained that simply manipulating the iDrive knob is too complex, since it not only rotates but pushes in, it can be displaced longitudinally and laterally in eight directions to select menus, and it also increases resistance to give haptic (tactile) feedback. "A manual geatbox is a good comparison," BMW spokesman Broede avers. "You have six or seven directions you can go, from first gear to sixth and reverse, and you use that system without looking. The iDrive controller will be the same."
In the United States, Kuenzner says, it is already apparent that West Coast early adopters "love the iDrive from the beginning," while the East Coast Luddites "are much more conservative." The dominant screen, particularly, delights the former and is off-putting for the latter.
One criticism of the iDrive system is that a large part of the market for luxury sedans consists of middle-aged people who have never even bothered to develop computer literacy. "Those people who ask me, What does somebody who doesn't know computers do with this car," Kuenzner says with a laugh, "I tell them, Put a lid over the screen and enjoy driving."
The following is a sidebar to the article above
The BMW 745i, interface designer Jef Raskin says, "is a fabulous automobile. The suspension gives it a ride and handling nothing short of fantastic." And he's not opposed to a car that requires a learning curve. "The more a product is improved, the stranger it will seem. You may even have to read the manual." But, he argues, the BMW's interface design does not keep up with the superb engineering. A few Raskin guidelines for iDrive 2.0:
Assume the driver is blind. Raskin believes the BMW designers adapted inappropriate approaches from visually oriented computer interfaces. He designs for the blind, and suggests BMW should study that discipline because "when in motion, a driver should not look at-should be blind to-the display screen, keeping his or her eyes on the road."
Pick your best mode and run with it. "There are often three or even five ways of doing the same thing. The cognitive phenomenon of interference means that if you have to learn two methods to do the same thing, you are less likely to remember either one." Engineers should test various methods and then build the system around the method least likely to produce errors.
Control knobs aren't necessarily bad. Often, they're better than buried screen menus. "One guiding principle is that everything has a distinct feel, and can be operated by touch." For climate control, for example, "there is not much wrong with controls in today's simpler cars. Make the fan knob look and feel like fan blades, make the temperature knob slide up and down like a thermometer scale."
Voice recognition is good, but underutilized in the 745i. Voice recognition cleverly combined with the haptic (tactile feedback) knob could overcome the confusion of so many modes and options: The car would audibly guide you to your next choices as you operated the iDrive knob by touch.