BMW's new car AI has a 'face' that expresses emotions in 'human-like manner'

BMW iDrive
(Image credit: BMW)

The wraps have been taken off the next generation of the BMW iDrive system, bringing a host of new features and up-to-date connectivity to its fleet – and it's set to debut in the firm's upcoming all-electric car, the BMW iX.

It's with iX divers and passengers in mind that BMW has approached the new iDrive system, giving it a clear focus on electric cars going forward.

The main feature of the system are the dual-displays, with a 12.3-inch information display behind the steering wheel and a central 14.9-inch control display, which are designed to look like one unit.

BMW says the screens have a resolution density of 200ppi, which is a little less than the 264ppi you find on the iPad 10.2 and iPad Air 4, but should still result in a clear display.

There's a subtle curve to the displays too, and they're angled towards the driver to aid the touch control element. With more screens comes fewer buttons, and BMW says it's reduced the number of physical switches by almost 50% with its new iDrive system.

The reduction in buttons is something that's becoming more common in new vehicles – and especially electric cars – as manufacturers looks to a more minimalist cabin.

BMW has retained some buttons for key functions – such as shortcuts to the nav, media, drive modes and even the heated front and heated rear windows controls.

BMW iDrive

(Image credit: BMW)

Most of the physical controls are located between the front two seats, and this area is crowned by a glass-effect (in the BMW iX at least) circular touch controller. 

Those familiar with BMW's previous iDrive systems will be familiar with this rotary disc control, and it's been given a face-lift for this latest generation of the system.

Talk to me

While some users will find this touch control, and the physical volume scroll wheel below it, more natural to use, BMW is keen for drivers and passengers to interact via the iDrive touch displays and also via its own personal voice assistant.

The new iDrive system features the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which operates in a similar way to Apple's Siri and Google Assistant, allowing for natural language interaction between yourself and the vehicle.

This isn't the first time a voice assistant has been used in a car, and it's also not BMW's first foray into the tech, but it's applied greater AI to its latest version, making it more intelligent, allowing it to adjust to your individual needs and routines, as well as the context of the current situation.

BMW iDrive

(Image credit: BMW)

What's more, you can give the assistant a name of your choice, which you can then use as a prompt to engage with it. 

And if naming your assistant isn't enough, BMW has also portrayed the AI as a visualization which – it claims – "gives it a 'face'" as well as "a trustworthy and appealing aura" while it "displays the dynamism required to be able to express different emotions and states of mind non-verbally."

What this translates to is a cluster of balls onscreen, which will perform different movements as the AI listens, thinks and then answers your commands and questions, to make you feel like it's actively working with you in the conversation.

Just how well the intelligent assistant will work remains to be seen and we'll put it to the test later this year when the BMW iX becomes available.

BMW iDrive

The BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant's... err... 'face' (Image credit: BMW)

The new iDrive system is built on the BMW Operating System 8.0, and it also boasts 5G connectivity. BMW says that the 5G connection provides around 40x faster data exchange between the vehicle and external elements.

That means faster over-the-air updates for new features in the future (BMW says the new system can process a 1GB update in 20 minutes), and also better communication between your car and everything else – be it other vehicles, traffic lights or other smart city infrastructure.

BMW Maps has also been updated as part of Operating System 8.0, and it can now show full parking and charging information on the map as well as the usual navigation functions – all of which work together to provide enhanced route planning.

The system will also learn your regular driving habits, suggesting destinations and potential issues for frequently driven routes. There will also be full support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, allowing you to mirror core smartphone apps on BMW's curved displays.

The new BMW iDrive system will make its debut in the fully electric BMW iX which launches this "summer" (likely June – August), and will then find its way into its i4 electric car before rolling out to the rest of the BMW fleet.

John McCann
Global Managing Editor

John joined TechRadar over a decade ago as Staff Writer for Phones, and over the years has built up a vast knowledge of the tech industry. He's interviewed CEOs from some of the world's biggest tech firms, visited their HQs and has appeared on live TV and radio, including Sky News, BBC News, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, LBC and BBC Radio 4. Originally specializing in phones, tablets and wearables, John is now TechRadar's resident automotive expert, reviewing the latest and greatest EVs and PHEVs on the market. John also looks after the day-to-day running of the site.