BMW Connected+ Ensures Your Car is an Extension of Your Digital World


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BMW is not alone in advancing a seamless connection between its cars and the digital world of its customers. But it wants to be the leader with the pending release of BMW Connected+, the umbrella for a number of services and apps, which essentially turns the car into another smart device.

Connected+ will likely launch in August, and its developers see it as a differentiator for its customers with the host of integrated services and amenities consolidated in the BMW app that taps into a Microsoft computing cloud. You don’t even have to be in the car to be connected to it.

BMW sees Connected+ as a digital bridge between smartphones and automobiles and is rolling it out on vehicles with iDrive 6.0 such as the new 5 Series and X3. The automaker sees this as a springboard to evolve from a carmaker to a tech company offering mobility as well as digital services. BMW is not alone on this path. Ford’s mantra for the past couple years is that it is not a car company but rather a mobility company. The man who led that charge, Mark Fields, was asked to step down as CEO earlier this year.

“We can use digital experiences to differentiate,” said Dieter May, BMW senior vice president in charge of Digital Products and Services. “It’s not just about wheels and engines and rims.”

It’s also a way to keep a vehicle fresh during its lifecycle and a potential moneymaker if premium customers pay for digital services that help make their life easier.

Here is an example of how Connected+ works. Your calendar shows a meeting across town. Before you leave work, share the address from your contacts or directions from Google Maps with BMW Connected+ and launch the app. Because it is integrated with Alexa, ask the personal assistant to tell BMW to remotely turn on the air conditioning so the cabin is nicely cooled by the time you get to it. From your phone, check the 3D view of your car in its parking spot. Meanwhile, the app has calculated when you should leave to arrive on time. Built into the equation is how long it will take to walk to your parking spot and directions while on foot. Connected+ checks if you have enough gas for the trip. If not, it suggests gas stations en route and figures that into the drive time as well.

Once in the car, where your phone pairs automatically, the touchscreen becomes a command center. With a tap, you can share your trip with the people you are meeting so they can track your arrival or receive automatically generated text updates on your journey. When you get a warning of traffic or heavy rain ahead, they can see the adjusted time of arrival. Get your own trip summary after you arrive. It was a feature initially for electric vehicles to gauge charge levels, but customers with regular engines asked for it too.

Because half of BMW customers are businesspeople, this fall Connected+ will add Skype for voice-only access to virtual meetings and Microsoft Exchange to have emails or appointments on the main screen and read aloud. Voice recognition helps compose replies, said May.

Smartwatches, personal assistants, computers, and other devices all sync with BMW Connected+, and the information goes with you from one BMW to another because all owners have a BMW ID with their digital profile that includes personalized vehicle settings such as radio or navigation presets and mobility patterns.

BMW has organized the available services by category: My Car (scheduled a service appointment), My Life (check time of flight later in the day), My Journey (find a parking spot or charge stations), and My Assistant for concierge services.

Because digital services are not built into the vehicle’s hardware, they can be easily updated. The program is updated every two weeks with an upgrade or new feature.

BMW invited us to the Chicago Technology office, which does software development for digital services. There are also tech offices in Mountain View, California, Shanghai, and Tokyo, all working on new technologies to manage data and work on better connectivity.

There are more than 150 people in the Chicago office that opened in 2014. In addition to software development, they look at trends to see if they can be applied to the automobile, such as ordering from Amazon and having the package delivery intersect with the car on its way to a soccer game.

The Chicago office is near a Microsoft Technology Center. BMW chose Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform to support Connected and now Connected+ because it is scalable, has learning capability, and would work well in China—a key market.

“We were able to power this by doing the heavy lifting for BMW,” said Chris Boody, Microsoft managing director for business development. “We have data centers that are robust and secure. That allows BMW to be free to be innovative.”

BMW’s Chicago office does maintenance and development of the Open Mobility Cloud platform that is the brains of BMW Connect.

There are already 8.5 million BMW Group vehicles worldwide with SIM cards and BMW ConnectedDrive, which launched in March 2016 in 29 countries and 18 languages, followed by the launch of Mini Connected in November. There are now more than 1 million buyers who have registered to become users, and the target is to have all new car owners have an active Connect account, said May. The challenge is promoting it at the dealer level. Registering can now be done in minutes from the car.

May notes that content in vehicles will be even more important with autonomous vehicles, and personalization will be key to retaining brand value with increased ride sharing.

There is also a future business model as BMW executives eye subscriptions to some services, perhaps to extend features beyond a free period. And their research suggests people will pay for personal assistant services.

What if someone can’t get online or make a connection? Our test drive of the system with an iPhone and Apple watch had trouble connecting to a 2018 BMW 530e plug-in hybrid, though it was an early version of the software. A switch to another car and phone worked seamlessly.

Microsoft’s Boody noted the prevalence of 4G data connection and rollout of 5G in vehicles should help keep people connected. They are also looking at the ability to cache emails, for example, that can be seen when connectivity is restored. There is a balancing between what is already available in the car and what is necessary “so there is zero possibility of failure,” he said.

Adds May: “The features are not critical for the function of the car; they are for convenience.”

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