The BMW iDrive: To start the car…

The 2002 BMW 7 series is reviewed by the N.Y. Times and found to be “maddening” due to its new iDrive. At least they didn’t call it eDrive.

To start the car, you slide a thick card into a slot on the dash, but you do not twist it. Instead, you push a start button — your foot must be on the brake pedal — and you push another button to release the electric parking brake. Instead of a shift lever there is a small stalk near the steering wheel. (Like the other controls, it is an electric switch.) Pulling the stalk toward you releases the car from park; tugging it up or down puts the car in drive or reverse.

Before you are only a speedometer and tachometer plus spaces for readouts that you call up. To check the remaining fuel, you conjure up a digital gas gauge.

To operate innumerable other iDrive features — including the audio, climate and navigation systems, the built-in phone and all sorts of programmable settings for the locks, the lights and the like — you use the disk on the armrest, called the iDrive controller. First you tug it one of eight directions that correspond to the points of a compass. To call up the navigation system, you push the controller to the right. Then you scroll through menus and submenus on the central screen by twisting, twirling or pressing the knob. It is not a hands-free process.

Though intended to be intuitive, iDrive is maddening, especially at first.

Although I’m a software engineer, I hate soft interfaces. A soft interface is necessary for a general purpose platform like a home computer which must be functionally expandable and eclectic. Further, most of those functions pertain to manipulating a soft entity, information, through logical contortions rather than manipulating a hard entity, such as your buns of steel, through time and space. A soft interface just does not belong on a car. It’s not necessary. A car has a limited set of functions and will not later need to be expanded to handle word processing and email. It is specialized. It is physical. It doesn’t need a GUI or a pointing device other than the steering wheel. What the hell was BMW thinking? I’ll take a row of switches and gauges over a joystick and drop down menus any day. My favorite interfaces are the most physical ones. I like every function to have a clearly marked knob, switch, button, or dial, and I like to have only those functions necessary to do the job. One notable difference between low to middle end electronics and high-end electronics is that the hi-end stuff has alot less functional litter. Hi-fi audio components don’t have 30 knobs and buttons framing a big, cluttered digital display. They have on on/off button, a big knob, an LED or two, and maybe a simple LCD readout. They are built and engineered like tanks and don’t mess around. Take for example this integrated amp featuring a power button and an LCD display or this integrated amp featuring a power button and three big, clearly labeled knobs. That’s user interface.