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Techno-Insanity

Lead Line — August 2002
Lead Line — August 2002
By Richard Thiel

Techno-Insanity
Too much technology means too little fun.
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A few months back I read how BMW's new 745i had broken new ground with iDrive, an interactive computer control system. It includes voice-recognition software that governs 270 functions; those plus another 430 functions can be controlled by a console-mounted "joy wheel," with information displayed on a video screen in the center of the dash.

While I had trouble imagining 700 things I'd want a car to do, the implications of this technology were immediately apparent. Voice control would be perfect for boats. Change a radio channel, enter a GPS destination, alter climate-control settings, make a cellphone call--the driver of a $68,495 745i can do it all with just words. Why not the captain of a $300,000 boat or, better yet, a multimillion-dollar yacht? He could alter his radar display during a squall, check on his diesels, and activate and aim his spotlight without taking his eyes off the water. Why hadn't some boatbuilder thought of this?

I knew I had to drive the car. One call to BMW North America, and a sleek, silver 745i was delivered to the parking garage across the street from my office. When I arrived to pick it up, a crowd was already encircling my car. They were not admiring it. They were helping the attendant figure out how to get it into park--it has no conventional shift lever--so he could get out of it. After 20 minutes of multidialect confabulation, the conundrum was solved, but it was another ten minutes before I could unlock the door for my passenger. Well, every car has a learning curve, and I'd figure this one out.

Within minutes we were acrawl in Friday afternoon Manhattan traffic, the perfect venue for experimentation. I pressed the "talk" icon on the steering wheel and was greeted by a chime and message on the tachometer: "Voice System Activated."

"Air conditioning!" I commanded. Nothing. "Cooler!" Silence. After essaying a few more synonyms to no avail, I resorted to the joy wheel and video menu. Thirty-five minutes of navigating dead ends, and I was sweating like a stevedore. I humbly rolled down all the windows and opened the sunroof.>

How about a phone call? "Telephone!" I directed. "Telephone on," a voice replied. Now I was getting somewhere. Soon I was bragging through the hidden microphones about what an awesome set of wheels this was as my listener oozed envy. That was, unfortunately, the last call I was able to make all weekend.

The rest of my time with the 745i was, if anything, worse. I learned it can do anything you want it to and some things you never dreamed of, but you must conform to it. You must learn this car. It's not enough to read the owner's manual, you must study it and practice. That's what I had to do to learn how to operate the radio. After an hour in a parking lot, I could select an FM station not in memory, but when I tried to duplicate the process in traffic, I nearly T-boned another car. The GPS? Totally inscrutable.

This car taught me some valuable lessons. One, too much technology means too little fun. Once I shut off all its gizmos (I couldn't figure out how to shut off the radio, so I just turned it down), the 745i was the most exciting, rewarding vehicle I had ever driven. Boatbuilders take note: Unlike automobiles, boats have no utilitarian component. People drive them for fun, and any technology that comes aboard ought not detract from that.

Two, good technology is intuitive. It conforms to the operator, not vice versa.

Three, despite my unpleasant experience, I believe voice control has a future, both in cars and in boats. BMW will work out the kinks in its system, and I hope boatbuilders learn from its mistakes before they take their first steps.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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