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BMW previews its next-gen iDrive infotainment system

By Frederic Lardinois

At CES 2021, BMW today provided us with a first glimpse of the future of its iDrive system, 20 years after it first launched in the 2001 7 Series. Today’s announcement mostly focuses on the past, with a look back at the history of BMW’s infotainment platform, but the company did provide a bit more context and images of the new system that will make its official debut on the sizable displays in its upcoming iX soon.

Obviously, we’re looking at a refreshed and more colorful design here. Based on what we can glance from the materials that BMW did make available, current BMW drivers shouldn’t have too high a learning curve as the overall layout still looks familiar.

Despite the addition of BMW’s own personal voice assistant and gestures in recent updates, the iDrive knob in the center console isn’t going away, though it looks like it will be getting some design tweaks, too. Clearly, though, BMW isn’t planning to do away with physical controls anytime soon.

Image Credits: BMW

The overall philosophy behind the update, BMW says, is to offer a system that is better able to utilize the potential of a connected car in order to “make the mobility experience even safer, even more comfortable and convenient, and even richer in variety.”

The argument here is that the car, thanks to its myriad of sensors and connectivity, now often has access to far more information than the driver. That, BMW says, has influenced the new iDrive’s design, but the company isn’t quite ready to delve into any details yet, it seems. Based on what we can glance from the materials that BMW did make available, though, current BMW drivers won’t have too high a learning curve as the overall layout still looks somewhat familiar.

Image Credits: BMW

“The next generation of BMW iDrive takes the burgeoning relationship between a BMW and its driver to a new level,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “The new system neatly bridges the gap between analogue and digital technology. And this, in turn, heralds another paradigm shift, as the number of available functions in a car and their complexity continue along a constant upward curve.”

Eco-conscious car subscription platform finn.auto raises $24.2M, with White Star and Zalando founders

By Mike Butcher

Finn.auto — which allows people to subscribe to their car instead of owning it, and offsetting their CO₂ emissions — has raised a $24.2 million / €20 million Series A funding round. White Star Capital (which has also invested in Tier Mobility), and the Zalando co-CEOs Rubin Ritter, David Schneider and Robert Gentz, are new investors in this round. All previous investors participated.

The funding comes just under a year since the company launched, after selling just 1,000 car subscriptions. It’s also partnered with Deutsche Post AG and Deutsche Telekom AG.

A number of car manufacturers have launched similar subscription services powered by various providers, such as Drover, LeasePlan and Wagonex.

U.K.-based startup Drover has raised a total of $40 million in funding over five rounds. Their latest Series B funding round was with Shell Ventures and Cherry Ventures . Plus, there are branded services which include Audi on Demand, BMW, Citroën, DS, Jaguar Carpe, Land Rover Carpe, Mini, Volkswagen and Care by Volvo.

Digitally led subscription services have the potential to disrupt the traditional car sales model, and new startups are entering the market all the time.

The finn.auto model is proving to appeal to environment-conscious millennials. For each car subscription, the company is offsetting the CO₂ emissions of its vehicles, meaning subscribers can drive their cars in a climate-neutral manner. It’s now expanding its range of fully electric vehicles and, in cooperation with ClimatePartner, is supporting selected regional climate protection and development projects.

Key to the Munich-based startups’ play is the automation of fleet management processes and customer interactions, meaning it’s much easier and cheaper to run this kind of subscription operation.

Max-Josef Meier, CEO and founder of finn.auto, said: “We are delighted to have been able to bring such high-caliber investors on board and that our existing investors are cementing their confidence with the current round. Mobility with your own car becomes as easy as buying shoes on the internet. We already offer a large selection of different car brands, whose cars can be ordered online on our platform in just five minutes and at flexible runtimes. The delivery is then conveniently made to the front door.”

Nicholas Stocks, general partner at White Star Capital added: “There is a huge opportunity globally to streamline outdated customer experiences in the automotive retail space and become the Amazon of the automotive industry. This is something finn.auto is excellently placed to capitalize on with its offering of convenience, flexibility, value and sustainability.”

I’m obsessed with the Ford Mustang Mach-E physical touchscreen volume knob

By Matt Burns

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E features a giant touchscreen, and at the bottom is a sizable knob for volume control. I love it. There, stuck on a touchscreen, is a physical knob. Twist it! Spin it! There’s even a resounding click as it twists. The knob works so much better than a touchscreen slider bar, and I implore other automakers to follow Ford’s lead. This knob is a surprisingly simple solution.

Under the knob are tiny strips that interact with the touchscreen as if it was touched by a finger. When the knob is twisted, these strips drag across the screen, tricking the system into thinking a human is controlling it. As far as I can tell, the knob itself is nothing more than a few pieces of plastic glued onto the screen.

Ford’s system in the Mustang Mach-E is a happy compromise between massive touchscreens and good user interfaces. The user gets the benefits of a spinning knob, while Ford doesn’t have to build and install additional physical components to maintain standards. From my experience with the volume control, there’s no discernible lag, and it works very well. Spin it to change the volume or press the center to mute the audio. As with any great design, it works exactly like one would expect.

Audio volume should always be controlled by a rotating knob, dial, or wheel. There’s no debate.

Automakers have long played with alternative volume control schemes, and I’ve yet to find one that works better than a simple knob.

BMW offers in-car gesture controls: Hover your hand over the center stack, stick one finger out and draw a circle in the air. It works okay. I like the gesture control for somethings, but it feels silly, spinning a finger to change the volume.

Other car makers like Cadillac looked to touch-sensitive slider bars for controlling volume. Most have since abandoned this design for several reasons. The control strips are often built flush with the rest of the dashboard and do not provide the user with any feedback. The systems are often slow to respond, too, making the experience frustrating and underwhelming.

Thankfully, most modern cars have steering wheel controls in addition to the main volume knob. Some are spinning wheels, others are buttons, and I’m clearly on team spinning wheel.

As touchscreens started infiltrated cars, more automakers looked to offload volume controls to the screen with onscreen slider bars. It’s often less expensive to use a touchscreen than a physical button, but the experience is never superior. At this point, most automakers put interactive content on a screen and install a twisting knob for volume and mute elsewhere on the dashboard.

What’s it like to drive the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E? I can’t tell you for a few days.

Also note, this post consumed my monthly allotment of the word knob. There are 14 instances in this post and I’m very sorry.

Greece’s Marathon Venture Capital completes first close for Fund II, reaching $47M

By Mike Butcher

Marathon Venture Capital in Athens, Greece has completed the first closing of its second fund, reaching the €40m / $47M mark. Backing the new fund is the European Investment Fund, HDBI, as well as corporates, family offices and HNWIs around the world (plus many Greek founders). It plans to invest in Seed-stage startups from €1m to 1.5m initial tickets for 15-20% of equity.

Team changes include Thaleia Misailidou being promoted to Principal, and Chris Gasteratos is promoted to Associate.

Marathon’s most prominent portfolio company is Netdata, which last year raised a $17 million Series A led by Bain Capital, and later raised another $14m from Bessemer. On the success side, Uber’s pending $1.4B+ acquisition of BMW/Daimler’s mobility group was in part driven by a Marathon-backed startup, Taxibeat, which was earlier acquired by Daimler.

Partners George Tziralis and Panos Papadopoulos tell me the fund is focused generally on enterprise/B2B, plus “Greek founders, anywhere”.

Highlights of Fund One’s investments include:

  • Netdata (leading infra monitoring OSS, backed by Bessemer & Bain)
  • Lenses (leader in DataOps, backed by 83North)
  • Hack The Box (cybersecurity adversarial training labs)
  • Learnworlds (business-in-a-box for course creators)
  • Causaly (cause-and-effect discovery in pharma)
  • Augmenta (autonomous precision agriculture)

Tziralis tells me the majority of its next ten companies have already raised a Series A round.

Tziralis and Papadopoulos have been key players in the Greek startups scene, backing many of the first startups to emerge from the country over 13 years ago. And they were enthusiastic backers of our TechCrunch Athens meetup many years ago.

Three years ago, they launched Marathon Venture Capital to take their efforts to the next level. Fund I invested in 10 companies with the first fund, and most have raised a Series A. The portfolio as a whole has raised 4x their total invested amount and maintains an estimated total enterprise value of $350 million.

They’ve also been running the “Greeks in Tech” meetups all over the world – Berlin to London to New York to San Francisco, and many more locations in between, connecting with Greek founders.

BMW announces the iX, its next-gen electric flagship

By Frederic Lardinois

At its (virtual) NextGen 2020 event, BMW today announced that the BMW iX, its new all-electric flagship previously known as the iNext, will launch at the end of 2021. Based on BMW’s fifth-generation eDrive technology, the iX will get a new look — and new kidney grille design — but its dimensions will be similar to the existing X5 or X6 SUVs. The company promises about 300 miles of range and 0-60 mph times of just under five seconds.

BMW has not released any pricing for the iX yet. Rumors earlier this year pegged it at close to $100,000.

The company says it will have more than a million electrified cars on roads by the end of 2021. Right now, about 13% of all BMW and MINI models registered in Europe are either all-electric or plug-in hybrids, and the expectation is that by 2030, that number will increase to 50%.

Image Credits: BMW

Coming next year, that lineup will include a number of new additions to the company’s electrified fleet, but the iX is clearly the focus here, though the next-generation eDrive system will also feature in the 2021 i4, for example, and BMW is experimenting with a 5-Series model that features three of these new motors for a maximum power output of 720 hp (we’re still talking about a company that made its name by combining performance and luxury, after all).

Image Credits: BMW

With DC fast charging at up to 200 kW, the iX should be able to charge from 10 to 80% in about 40 minutes. A 10-minute top-off at a fast-charging station should be enough for about 75 miles. For the most part, that’s in line with comparable electric cars, though Tesla’s V3 Supercharging promises somewhat faster recharge times and others can charge at more than 200 kW.

In addition to being BMW’s electric flagship, the iNext/iX unsurprisingly also showcases the company’s latest technology innovations. That’s obviously no surprise, given that BMW has used various iterations of its iNext concept car to think about how to best integrate new technologies into its next-generation of vehicles.

Image Credits: BMW

For the iX, these include all the standard driver assistance systems you’d expect today (though details there are scarce), a head-up display and large screens with a 12.3-inch instrument cluster and a 14.9-inch control display. But what’s maybe even more interesting here is the company’s over philosophy which the company describes as “shy tech.”

“Shy tech refers to technology that remains largely in the background and only reveals its functions when they are being used,” the company says in today’s announcement. “On entry into the car, the function in question is the electrically powered door locks. The interior welcomes the occupants of all five seats with a luxurious lounge-style ambience, and provides the space required to explore new ways of using time spent inside the car.”

For the most part, the user interface also strips away all distractions to allow the driver to focus on the road.

Image Credits: BMW

It’s no secret that BMW would like to — at some point — allow drivers to lounge in their self-driving cars. BMW hasn’t talked about the car’s driver assistant features yet, so that future hasn’t quite arrived just yet, but the company argues that by leaving out the usual center tunnel, it can provide a more “airy and specious feel” that “accentuates the lounge-style ambience and long-distance comfort provided by the interior.”

Image Credits: BMW

In many ways, the iX is the current apotheosis of BMW’s electric ambitions, and it is worth noting that, unlike others, the company is keeping a lot of the development in-house. That includes its Dingolfing plant, but as the company noted today, it is also developing its own battery cells and a new pilot plant for building its batteries near Munich should open in 2022. “This pilot plant will make BMW the first carmaker to cover the entire process chain for electric driving in-house,” BMW argues.

Image Credits: BMW

This wouldn’t be a major tech launch if it didn’t also feature a 5G aspect and indeed, the iX will feature built-in 5G connectivity, which should make it among the first — if not the first — 5G-enabled production car. Ideally, that means higher bandwidth and lower latency when the car needs to connect to the BMW cloud. But as we’ve all learned from recent phone launches, 5G is currently more of a buzzword than game-changing technology. What’s maybe more important here is that it may enable new C-V2X (Cellular Vehicle to Everything) solutions that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other and nearby smartphones — even without a mobile network.

Image Credits: BMW

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