Thursday 22 March 2018

Motoring: Want to email and drive? BMW talks your language

The Bavarian masters have devised a high-tech system to keep you safe at the wheel while keeping in touch. Eddie Cunningham takes it for a spin

BMW 316D
BMW 316D
BMW 316D interior with Connected Drive system
Connected Drive system
Connected Drive system
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

Perhaps I should apologise to a couple of people who received strange emails from me. Blame them on my diction and accent. Let me explain. I've just had one of those 'interfaces' with the future.

I tested out a new tech system here, designed to let me dictate and have emails read out to me while I drove.

Yes, emails get a 'voice'.

One or two strange ones got away on me because the system thought I'd said something else.

That's why I'm getting my apologies in first. How I spoke and phrased my words were major drawbacks, apparently.

It was a strange, enjoyable and challenging experience, and it wasn't all plain sailing. But it certainly lifted a veil on what is immediately possible in the whole realm of safe – that is the critical thing – communications on the move. I can only begin to imagine what will come our way over the next couple of years.

I wanted to see, however, if, right now, technology – that great catch-all phrase – could keep me safe and legal while still being able to 'hear' and call out emails.

It was all prompted by the clampdown on texting at the wheel and the absolute necessity to be not just hands free but distraction free as well. That has to be at the core of the legislation – and the technology. So, after trialling in another Beemer (phone compatibility reasons) for a while, I used the 'Connected Drive' system for a much longer stint in a different BMW 316D.

I had discovered that BMW is testing out an updated system for release later this summer, so I wanted a foretaste. As I said, it is designed to let you dictate emails and have them read out to you as well all while you are driving.

I'm told you can expect this Enhanced Bluetooth facility, as it is called, to cost around €600. That's a good deal less than a court appearance and fine for texting at the wheel.

I don't think the name Enhanced Bluetooth necessarily conveys the comprehensive nature of what this package manages to do. (They already have Bluetooth standard on cars).

For a start, it lets you pair two phones – personal and business for example.

Also new is the email voice dictation/readout element. It is compatible with the likes of Blackberry devices etc for now and I reckon will be with iPhone in the near future.

The criss-crossing of compatibility necessitated me hopping and trotting between two cars to make sure I sampled all elements. For most of my drive, the system (female voice) just read out emails.

Of course there were hiccups.

We laughed at how my spoken words had translated into something totally different when I earlier dictated an email.

But I learned – and was shown – how to dictate emails more clearly and concisely and to tailor them so that the technology 'understood'.

My initial onboard expert was even able to tell the system where to put commas. I daren't do that for fear of misinterpretation.

With the ability to send/receive emails, texts etc and with full voice control and USB interface at my disposal, I went through the stages carefully before I took to the road.

In essence, it is simple. You'll get the hang of it in half an hour, I'd say. Probably took me an hour but then it became nearly second nature.

Everything works through a large circular control button (iDrive) and most of it was intuitive.

However, I had to try hard for it to get used to me.

I admit that part was a bit frustrating. I have yet to find a voice control in any car (for radio channel, CD etc) that has understood one prompt from me the first time around.

I think it has to do with my use of 'dis' instead of 'this' and 'dat' instead of 'that'. The BMW system, I have to say, acclimatised more quickly than anything else I've tried.

In the midst of it all, I couldn't help thinking about the pace of change. As a concept, I still find it staggering that someone somewhere can send me an email that can be read out to me while I drive.

And I really enjoyed the sense of being informed in that manner.

I reckon that I spent no more time clicking on the iDrive than I would to change a radio channel.

I think we will all have to realise, however, that it is possible to be distracted. BMW warns about that and says certain functions should not be carried out while the car is moving. That is vital.

Another interesting element, which you buy separately, is the snap-in adaptor for your phone. It fits into a slot in the armrest.

You don't really need it because your normal mobile phone connection works fine. But slotting it in like that makes the phone part of the car (and charges it). And that means the connection/reception is much better because it uses the car's roof antenna.

Overall I found it all fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. BMW, like all the other carmakers, says this is only the start. The technology is expanding exponentially.

After this, I am in no doubt that technology like this removes the need for anyone to go near their mobile phone while at the wheel again.

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