This BMW was not made with Millenials in mind.
Any cheatsheet for communicating with the generation that now outnumbers baby boomers includes the fact that (thanks to Tinder) swiping right is a recognized gesture of approval. Swiping left means no thanks. BMW got it backward in the sixth-generation 7 Series, in which you wave your hand to the right to reject an incoming call.
Then again, with a starting price of $81,300 the 7 Series isn’t for the young’uns. It’s the range-topper, the flagship, the one meant for chauffeuring executives. And it’s those well-heeled customers who’ll get to wave their hands in the air to use some features, because, yup, the 7 Series features gesture controls.
If the idea of waving your hand to turn up the stereo excites you but the 7 Series doesn’t, don’t worry. It won’t be long before this tech comes to cars the rest of us can afford.
The 7 occupies the strata where the latest and potentially greatest gizmos are rolled out. Adaptive cruise control, power windows, backup cameras—all got their start at the high end, then trickled down into mass market cars. It’s a constant battle between top-tier luxury manufacturers to offer the swankiest features, and the 7 Series is BMW’s latest salvo in this arms race.
The 7 Series is BMW’s luxo-barge, a vehicle designed more for comfort than handling, which is why it looks (and feels) more like a living room than a motor car. But the automaker insists the 7 will be “athletic, sporty, fun to drive,” and it pulled a few moves to make it happen.
BMW has been enamored with carbon fiber, using it extensively in the i3 and i8 electric cars, adding it to high-performance cars like the M3 and M4, and even building a factory (powered by hydroelectricity) to manufacture the stuff. Carbon fiber is light and stiff, making it a great (albeit expensive) material for cutting weight without sacrificing structural integrity—and therefore increasing performance and fuel economy. That’s why BMW is using it in the 7’s roof crossbeams, roof structure, and transmission tunnel. The rest of the body is aluminum and steel.
Using carbon in the top half of the vehicle lowers the center of gravity, improving handling. The new 7 Series is 200 pounds lighter than the 4,310-pound car it replaces. That’s hardly svelte, but less weight is always a good thing. Unsprung weight—anything that isn’t supported by the suspension, like the wheels—has been cut 15 percent. The adaptive transmission works with the navigation system to proactively change gears to maximize performance and efficiency by, say, downshifting just before ascending a hill.
You Still Have to Drive
BMW is far more shy about embracing the coming age of autonomous driving than rivals Audi and Mercedes—its slogan is “the ultimate driving machine,” after all—but the 7 Series has a few tricks that take a step in that direction. Traffic jam assist is one of them; the technology keeps the car in its lane and maintains a safe distance from other vehicles when you’re creeping along at less than 25 mph.
If the car thinks you’re about to hit someone in your blind spot, it will tweak the steering to nudge you back to safety. If a collision’s imminent, the car won’t stop itself for you, but it will tweak the computer so you get full braking the moment you hit the pedal.
But beyond these tame features—which we’ve already seen from rivals—unless you spring for a chauffeur, you’ll be doing nearly all the driving. Which is a shame for two reasons: 1) autonomous driving is the most exciting thing happening in the auto industry right now, and BMW let the pitch go by; and 2) because the back seat’s where it’s at.
Step Into Mein Living Room
Historically, what’s best about the 7 Series is what’s going on in the backseat. The staples of the 21st century luxury car are all here: LED lighting, massage seats, Napa leather, a panoramic moon roof, and more.
The fragrance system can even scrub pollen from the air, so passengers with allergies needn’t to spoil their silk handkerchiefs.
The car has a Wi-Fi hotspot and inductive (wireless) phone charging. There are also standard USB ports for anyone carrying a phone that doesn’t support the new charging tech. The armrests are heated, the rear seats recline, and you can get a footrest on the back of the passenger seat.
There are screens everywhere. The center console is now a touchscreen with “iPad-like logic” (meaning you pinch to zoom out). The rear seats each get their own 10-inch screen with an HDMI port and DVD player.
Even the freaking car key has a screen, to tell you if the doors are locked and the windows are closed, and to turn on the climate control before you get in. You can get the same info via a phone app on just about every new cars these days. Having it on the key isn’t better, just fancier. In this market, that’s reason enough.
Also in back is a small Samsung tablet that controls things like the ambience lighting and—yes—the fragrance system. Like in a Mercedes S-Class, you can take your choice of scents—“lush grass,” anyone?—plug in the cartridge, and make your Bimmer your sanctuary of zen. BMW says the system can even scrub pollen from the air, so passengers with allergies needn’t to spoil their silk handkerchiefs.
The moon roof—kinda surprisingly—isn’t a giant screen, but 7 Series buyers can opt to have it come with 15,000 tiny etchings in the glass, which reflect LED lights in neat ways to create a special overhead effect. It’s enough to make the kaiser’s palace look like a hovel.
Throw Your Hand in the Air
OK, back to this whole gesture control thing. Heat and motion sensors in the headliner read what your hand is doing. Rotate your finger clockwise to turn the volume up, counterclockwise for down. Point to the screen to accept a call. Pointing with two fingers is programmable, you can set it to do whatever you want short of actually drive the car. Based on a quick demo I saw, it worked well.
If you can program a few easy to learn gestures, you have a good way to make communicating with the car easier and faster.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea as a gimmick, but there’s an argument in its favor: Cars are getting super complicated, with ever bigger piles of options and features. Not every one can get its own button, there’s just not enough real estate. Touchscreens with more extensive menus are at best questionable, requiring the driver take her eyes off the road to use them. Voice control is getting better, but remains far from great.
If you can program a few easy to learn gestures, you have a good way to make communicating with the car easier and faster. The gestures BMW chose are wasted on things like volume controls, which are so frequently used they get dedicated buttons (usually on the steering wheel), but it’s a start.
This is likely just the beginning of this technology in our cars. And even if you never get to fall asleep in the backseat, ensconced in leather and getting a massage, you may someday have the 7 Series to thank of the gesture controls that make your Ford Focus such a blast to drive.