Hello Cranker Darlings… CY is still on hiatus this week because of NYE… here’s another written TBT from 10 years ago about BMW’s iDrive, complete with multimedia refreshments. The post is an example of crotchety automotive editors who were too “stuck in their ways” to understand they were looking at the future of driving. Some things never change, right? Hope you enjoy. — WP

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In Defense of iDrive (and other journalistic rantings)
By Will Pollock (originally posted to the Medill School of Journalism alumni site in 2005)

As a fair-minded journalist and car enthusiast, I get uppity every time the press denigrates BMW’s iDrive technology. To wit: The September 2005 issue of Car And Driver magazine once again shows its editors flagrantly repudiating BMW’s technological innovation. As I wind down my subscription to C&D after years of readership, I’d like to offer comment on the magazine’s lack of leadership on this topic and what sort of journalistic conclusions we can draw from it. (Related: have a look at this epic thread on Bimmerfest in which a poster rants about iDrive.) 

First, some background. iDrive represents a technology that BMW developed to collect normal cabin functions in one centralized joystick-and-dial location, initially launched in March 2001 for its redesigned 7 Series luxury sedan. The dial feels more natural and ergonomic in your hand than your computer mouse—cool and slick in brushed aluminum, set at the center of the vehicle’s interior middle console. As with any advancement like iDrive, the technology needed bugs worked out before it could be truly successful. What has emerged, after a number of software updates and enhancements, is a slickly integrated feature knob that revolutionizes the way BMW owners command their car’s primary functions. Navigation, climate, telephone, car data and other information are all easily and quickly available through the use of this ultra-cool controller.

Evidently, word has spread. As the editors of C&D continue to malign iDrive for being too clunky and maddening for their taste (“dreaded” and “over-teched” they say), luxury car makers, never to be outdone, have set aside the risk of a “me too” strategic move and developed their own similar technology for their luxury sedans. Audi launched its Multi Media Interface (or MMI™ for short), while Mercedes also has followed suit with its COMMAND controller, incorporated with its newly redesigned S-class flagship. C&D marked Mercedes’ launch with this shrieking headline: “Dread Alert! The digital rigmarole spreads to Stuttgart!”

From a 2007 review of the 7 series:

Then again, the 745i may also go down as a lunatic attempt to replace intuitive controls with overwrought silicon, an electric paper clip on a lease plan. One of our senior editors needed 10 minutes just to figure out how to start it (insert the key, step on the brake, then push the start button), five minutes to drop it into gear (pull the electronic column shifter forward, then up for reverse or down for drive), and then two weaving miles to decode the arcane seat controls (select which quadrant of the seat you wish to adjust from one of four buttons located near your inboard thigh, then maneuver the adjacent joystick until posterior bliss is achieved)–all of which made him so tardy to pick up his kid that he rushed, only to get bagged by a radar boy scout within sight of the school.

I can only imagine the cumulative journalistic talent that has been amassed at C&D over the years, but please, give it all a rest already. C&D should take a good look at how they’ve misjudged the direction and preferences of its industry and readers. Let’s not forget that those are the same readers who are driving demand of this technology; the more you patronize them with sarcasm the less connected you become. If customers weren’t searching for, or even demanding, this type of technological innovation in their cars, why else would automakers be doing it?

If customers weren’t searching for, or even demanding, this type of technological innovation in their cars, why else would automakers be doing it?

C&D and other publications (Consumer Reports recently called the iDrive “unintuitive, distracting”) have made it their business to put down a trend that they either don’t understand or don’t want to accept (or both) – not only that, but they’re clinging to what appears to be a creaky, digital-age aversion just as the auto industry experiences tangible maturity and growth from sound technological advancement. It’s inevitable progress that, although executed somewhat differently by each carmaker, is intended to improve standard car operation for the thrill and convenience of drivers around the world. In some ways, technology is just about the only avenue by which today’s carmakers can set themselves apart.

There are great lessons here for all reporters, writers and editors. Always second-guess yourself. Don’t relax into presumption and mistake it for consistency. In the same way, if you think that you might be out of step with your readership about one thing or another, don’t be afraid to ask yourself, “Why?” Don’t risk the price of being so enamored with your own viewpoint, or succumbing to the pressure of a collectively held opinion, that you miss the potential growth and development occurring around you. Unfortunately many editors have already fallen down that rabbit hole.

We as writers and editors are often asked to defend a position in our stories, but it makes zero sense to do so when that defense finishes on our readers’ palette like an exhausting, stale joke.

Should those editors consider that they might be wrong on this topic? Yes, absolutely. BMW’s new 7 Series – aside from being a gorgeous, muscular combination of performance and design – has consistently since its release cut into the market share of its primary rival, the Mercedes S-class, despite being “dismissed in the media as a failure,” as Ward’s Auto reported in February. And guess what: iDrive is easy to use. My computing-challenged, 75-year-old father, who traded up to his second 7 Series, a 745 Li, in 2003, has never been a more satisfied road steward.

“I love the iDrive and the car as well,” he says.

No matter how correct you think you may be, don’t stubbornly sacrifice change or progress as an editor or writer for the false pride of “sticktoitiveness” – if your industry tells you you’re becoming outmoded, listen. We as writers and editors are often asked to defend a position in our stories, but it makes zero sense to do so when that defense finishes on our readers’ palette like an exhausting, stale joke. If you believe carmakers are spoon-feeding you new technology that doesn’t make sense, by all means, call them on it. But don’t sacrifice good, sound judgment in the process. We as journalists must find the nut in the story AND fulfill the obligation we have to readers – truth, accuracy and flexibility in the face of change. We ought to embrace that change, let the industry drive editorial (not the other way around) and never become blinded by our own convictions.

I invite the C&D editors to come and watch my father easily manipulate his iDrive for greater control of the vehicle. And while I can promise seamless operation on his part, I can’t guarantee that my mother won’t be barking directions at my dad from her co-pilot seat. ❏

Since the iDrive initially offended automotive editors back in the 2000s, the technology has been widely cited by tech blogs as an innovative spark.

That’s it from me this week Cranker Darlings… Have a festive and safe New Year. I’ll be back with a fresh edition of CY next week—the first of 2016! Cheers and thanks for reading.

Will Pollock is a cranky New York City escapee living in Atlanta. He’s a freelance multimedia journalist and author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram—and check out the book links below. Please comment often… Cranky loves company.


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