Recently BMW invited MotoringFile to meet the people behind the ConnectedDrive program and the its lead Dr. Eckhard Stienmeier to see some of the future technology first-hand. While it was a great opportunity to get to know technology better, it was a better chance to get to know the people and see the enthusiasm behind the ideas.

But why are you talking BMWs on the biggest MINI news site in the world? Because if you want to know about the future of MINI’s technology you need to talk with BMW engineers. Look no further than MINI Connected, which started with BMW. As you might expect, that’s just the beginning.

ConnectedDrive is BMW’s program to bring different levels of connectivity into the car safely. The program started inconspicuously in the early 90’s with the Park Distance control on the E32 7 Series. The next big step for ConnectedDrive was addition of Advanced eCall which debuted in 1997. However today’s requirements are much different and there is much more connectivity desired by owners.

So what does ConnectedDrive actually do? It falls into three categories across BMW and MINI: connivence, infotainment and safety. For the owner it shows up currently as following services:

  • BMW online (BMW search in the us, BMW only)
  • Weather, news, google local search, parking info
  • BMW routes (BMW only)
  • Online updates for music (BMW only)
  • Driver profile (BMW only)
  • Send to phone

However, there is much more to come for both BMW and MINI. Just look at BMW’s home market. German BMW’s already have Google Street and Panoramio view integrated into the navigation, allowing you actually see the destination you’ve input. They also have current weather conditions on major cities as you zoom out on the map.

But there’s much more on the horizon. Starting with March production worldwide (it debuted on the X3 a few months ago) BMW will be integrating office functions from Blackberry phones. Contacts, messages, calendar, tasks, notepad, reminders they all will seamlessly integrate into the car via Bluetooth. Due to safety concerns, anything that you would normally read uses text-to-speech. Why only on Blackberry and no iPhone? At this time it’s the only platform that has API for all of that functionality. The iPhone will ultimately support this but it’s up to Apple as to when. Currently only the Calendar App functionality is supported.

Another feature that’s relatively new and worth noting is Bluetooth streaming. This allows audio streaming from any device that supports the technology (i/e most smart phones and even the iPod touch). Although be warned, you lose that cool album art you normally get with an Apple product attached via USB.

Perhaps the most noteworthy additions for ConnectedDrive this year are BMW Apps and the aformentioned MINI Connected. BMW Apps offers pretty much the same set of functionality as MINI Connected — Facebook and Twitter integration, Web Radio and “find car” (which uses the horn and/or lights, but is not available for MINI). As with MINI Connected, the iPhone is the only device supported at this time. Knowing our readers often have other smart phones, I have asked one of the senior engineers about Android. His response mirrored what I had heard on the MINI side. Given the current state of fragmentation in the Android platform, it’s very difficult to support at this time. However, it’s still definitely on BMW’s radar (as is BB and other support).

How does Apps compare with MINI Connected? Where BMW uses the wireless EDGE protocol via BMW Assist to power the functionality, MINI has no in-car connection (yet). Because of this, MINI had to leverage the connection of the phone itself. It’s a technique BMW also uses in some markets where EDGE isn’t integrated into the cars. We expect MINI to gain a connection through some type of BMW Assist-like option within the 3rd generation car, which debuts for 2013.

ConnectedDrive has an additional noteworthy app coming soon. “My BMW Remote” will allow you to find your car, unlock, lock it, start the heater and send addresses to the car. But here’s where things get interesting. We asked Dr. Steinmeier how this could impact older cars with BMW Assist (since the base technology hasn’t changed). He confirmed that, when the app is released, it will work on most BMW Assist cars from the past few years – not just new cars. That means (for example) your 2009 335i with BMW assist will gain some pretty cool functionality thanks to a free application on your iPhone. That’s progress in our eyes. New technology adding features to old BMWs. Unfortunately, this is not available for MINI due to the lack of a data connection with the current MINI range.

Also debuting later this year is RRTI – a completely new system for gathering traffic data. The technology uses the motion of mobile phone profiles on roads to get better data quicker than the current system. It leverages a special algorithm to generate new data every three minutes. Look for this to make its debut in the US either late this year or early next, with MINI following soon after.

Powering the entire BMW ConnectedDrive service offering is the EDGE connection every BMW with the Assist option has installed. Yes we said EDGE. A word that conjures up painfully slow connections on the first iPhone. Why no 3G? When BMW made the decision several years ago there simply wasn’t a 3G chipset that worked well with the demands of the car. It was also a network that was much more prevalent around the world than 3G (at that time). Look for an update in the years ahead. What happens when providers start to shut-down the old EDGE networks? Dr. Steinmeier confirmed that the current EDGE based BMW Assist will simply stop working along with all of this technology. But let’s not get too carried away – that is still many many years away from happening.

BMW ConnectedDrive also has offering in aftersales. The most noteworthy of the recent accessory is BMW Link. The ConnectedDrive team has partnered with DesignWorks to create an iPhone mounting system at the heart of the offering. It’s an aftersales accessory that places your iPhone in the center of the car where the navigation would normally be. It works in conjunction with the BMW Link app, which delivers an automotive-grade interface for music, phone, navigation and a few other ConnectedDrive functions. It’s your answer if you want BMW branded, automotive-grade infotainment but don’t want to shell-out $2,000 for it. We can’t help but think a MINI version would be perfect the younger demographic of the MINI brand.

Finally we come to The ConnectedDrive Vision that was shown at Geneva last week. This latest concept is meant to show what all of this technology will look like in 5-10 years. The concpet showcases an advanced Heads-Up Display that takes the technology currently available in production BMWs even further. It places a three-dimensional display of key information in the direct sight line of the driver, eliminating the need for the driver’s eyes to refocus. The three-dimensional display allows the real view to be overlaid with virtual information, highlighting hazards allowing the driver to assimilate all of the information quickly and take appropriate action. Think augmented reality for your car.

In addition to advanced Head-Up Display, the BMW Vision ConnectedDrive is equipped with a programmable instrument cluster to provide the driver with additional information at the visual emphasis of their choice. For the first time, passengers also get their own information display out of the driver’s field of vision. This allows them to see information, music or navigation details and pass them onto the driver with a simple touch of a finger.

While the far off future looks great, the present and near future isn’t bad either. As BMW starts to make iDrive and small screens standard (although you’ll still pay extra for nav) this technology will become much more prevalent, affordable important. It will also drive even more ideas for integration. A 3rd party app development program for BMW Apps, for instance. In our conversation BMW didn’t rule it out.

So what of EDGE? Clearly its days are numbered, as we mentioned earlier. However, Dr. Steinmeier imagines a time when an LTE connected BMW can send processing to the cloud for a vastly more powerful and faster system. As someone who’s surfed via iDrive many times, the future can’t come quick enough for BMW and MINI.