BMW's new ConnectedDrive will get drivers out of jams: System can also read out stories from The Straits Times

BMW’s new service allows you to view scenes of your destination. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA
BMW’s new service allows you to view scenes of your destination. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA
BMW’s new service allows you to have news articles read out to you. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA
BMW’s new service allows you to have news articles read out to you. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA
BMW’s new service allows you to find your car through your smartphone. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA
BMW’s new service allows you to find your car through your smartphone. -- PHOTO: BMW ASIA

BMW dealer Performance Motors will surely frown on me for saying this, but those eyeing BMW cars might want to hold off until July.

That is when a new service will be launched that will plug nearly every new BMW into the World Wide Web and more. It is called BMW ConnectedDrive, which sounds fanciful but it is actually descriptive.

On Monday morning, I was heading back to the newsroom in a BMW 528i equipped with the service after a reporting job at Collyer Quay. I punched Singapore Press Holdings' Toa Payoh North address into the navigation system and it plotted the most direct route through Upper Cross Street and the Chin Swee Road entrance of the CTE tunnel.

At the same time, the system warned me of road works and slow traffic at Upper Cross Street and asked if I wanted to divert to an alternative route through Eu Tong Sen Street, Hill Street, Rochor Canal Road, Bukit Timah Road and entering the CTE at the Kampong Java entrance.

I opted for the original route, just to see how accurate the warning was. I drove past the road works at exactly where the system said it would be. A colleague who was with me was speechless.

The BMW real-time traffic information is updated every five to 10 minutes, according to BMW Asia. I do not know of another carmaker that has put real-time traffic data provided by the Land Transport Authority into its navigation system.

This alone is enough to make ConnectedDrive a winner.

And if the system cannot get the car out of a jam, it does the next best thing - keeping passengers entertained. To do this, it has several tricks up its sleeve.

For news junkies, the system can read aloud news stories from media companies such as Agence France-Presse and The Straits Times. The voice is not as human as iPhone's Siri, but it is not entirely synthetic either.

Music lovers can stream songs into the car through services such as Spotify.

And workaholics can even check e-mail, although why someone would do that on the iDrive instead of a smartphone or tablet escapes me - unless it is to circumvent the Traffic Police ban on using of mobile devices when driving.

Still, it is one thing to listen to streaming music and quite another to court accidents by checking e-mail on the move. The e-mail service should be disabled.

And if news and music are not enough, BMW ConnectedDrive even allows the driver to call up a butler.

BMW calls it a concierge service. This is how it might be useful: Say you are heading to Alkaff Mansion for a dinner date but you are caught in a jam and you do not have the restaurant's telephone number.

You can call up the concierge via iDrive and say: "Can you call the restaurant and ask them to send a glass of champagne to the lovely lady at the table I booked? And tell her my present location and apologise on my behalf for being late."

The concierge will know where you are because your car's GPS coordinates are beamed to the call centre.

There is more. A Performance Motors executive who handed the test-car to me last week quipped: "You can call the concierge so that you have someone to talk to and not fall asleep driving to KL."

All calls to the concierge are handled by a call centre in the Philippines. But you will not chalk up overseas phone bills or data charges because BMW Asia is providing ConnectedDrive free for three years. (In reality, the cost may already be worked into the car price.) Rates after three years have not been fixed, but in Germany, a full suite costs $450 a year.

Technology-wise, BMW ConnectedDrive uses a built-in SIM card which turns the BMW iDrive display panel into a smartphone with 3G data services.

At Serangoon Garden, I searched "sushi" and a list of nearby restaurants serving sushi came up. The search did not stop there. After I picked a restaurant, its address was automatically picked up by the navigation system and a Google Streetview map popped up, giving me an idea of what the destination and its surroundings looked like.

While features such as navigation, news and Google searches are useful, functions such as weather forecast and stock market updates are less so.

The most useful feature of ConnectedDrive is one that all drivers should hope that they will never have to use. In an accident, the car will contact the call centre. And if the operator does not get a response from the driver, he will send emergency services to the car using its GPS coordinates.

Drivers can also carry some ConnectedDrive services in their pockets. This is done through smartphone apps that BMW developed to let drivers locate their cars on a map, check fuel levels, lock and unlock the vehicle, and more.

While ConnectedDrive is useful, I wonder whether it comes with a loss of privacy. The idea that someone overseas knows my location can be unnerving.

Still, the service is a boon to time-starved executives. BMW's press materials say that ConnectedDrive helps drivers "make progress instead of standing still". How apt.

Most of the cars in the BMW stable sold from July will have the full range of ConnectedDrive services. The five exceptions are the 116i, 218i, 316i, Z4 and X1.

The first trio are base models and they get only accident and road-side assistance, while the last two are soon-to-be-replaced models.

General Motors' OnStar has been offering similar services since 2000, but it is not available in Singapore.

tohyc@sph.com.sg