BMW Motorrad's Electronics Dumpster Fire
August 04, 2020
BMW Motorrad makes incredible motorcycles. I’ve been fortunate enough to own a few, ranging from a 2010 R1200RT, to a 1200GS, to an R nineT, to a 2020 R1250RT purchased last week. Each of these bikes shows world-class design and build quality. But BMW’s high-end bikes suffer from cockpit electronics that are far behind many competitors.
This post details what BMW is doing wrong with their electronics and outlines some straightforward steps that could take them from despised to loved by many riders of their top-end bikes.
The Navigator VI: Fewer features, at higher cost.
BMW’s first problem has persisted for years: they re-brand Garmin GPS units as their own, do minimal integration with the bike, remove valuable Garmin features, and then charge customers nearly twice the cost of the comparable Garmin unit. For years, we have tolerated this for three reasons:
- We want good GPS functionality that works in wet weather and with gloved hands. Bar-mounted phones generally will not give us that.
- BMW bundles in the mounts and sockets for their Navigators into most high end models (including the GS/GSA, RT, and K1600 lines) when the premium equipment packages are purchased; nobody wants an ugly handlebar mount for a GPS when an empty BMW socket sits nearby.
- The Wonder Wheel, pictured below, is a really fantastic input device on BMW’s bikes. It rotates around the grip, and jogs to the left or the right, enabling navigation of the electronics while keeping one’s hands safely on the grips. It’s a great feature!
This all sounds okay in theory, but quickly fails in many ways when a modern, smartphone-using rider tries to use a Navigator on a day-to-day basis. Besides BMW’s insulting pricing of the Navigator devices, the dumpster fire ignites with the following failures:
- The Navigators lacks features that equivalent Garmin units (the Nav VI is a rebranded Garmin Zumo 595) have. BMW is either too cheap to license the features despite their premium charge to customers, too inept to negotiate licensing terms from Garmin that gives them these features, or too far removed from customer usage patterns to even know it’s a problem.
- If keeping in touch with family or friends is important while riding, BMW falls short by only give riders incoming call notification, but not visual incoming text/iMessage nofications. The Garmin unit does both. BMW users are left out in the cold.
- Media playback just doesn’t work. If you buy a brand new 2020 BMW (let’s say an R1250 RT for argument’s sake), plug in your iPhone to the provided USB socket on the bike, and go to the Navigator’s media player, you expect it to see the plugged-in device. Nope. Not even with a Bluetooth connection also established. There are guides on how to maybe make this work with many extra steps, none of which should be required on bikes in this price bracket.
The Worst of Both Worlds
Some models have a combination of analog gauges, digital instruments, and -optionally- the Navigator. My dashboard is a great example:
I actually love this instrument cluster very much. I enjoy having some analog gauges and these are clear, big, and easy to read. The smaller LCD screen between the dials is also quite useful for in-bike systems settings.
But BMW has created a "worst of both worlds" scenario by taking the Wonder Wheel input, which was very good on the R1200GS, and bifurcating it. On the RT and K1600 series, the Wonder Wheel only controls the small display between the gauges. Lost is the ability to control the Navigator except indirectly through the small menus between the dials. That’s right: you have to input into one device to abstractly control another device. It’s extremely limiting, not intuitive, and highlights BMW’s lack of real integration and inability to influence important aspects of the Navigators core software, despite the expensive BMW logo on the plastic case.
Double the Pain by Doubling the Screens
In 2017, BMW introduced the Connected TFT system, a TFT display that replaces all of the analog and LCD displays on some -but not all- models. This was designed to be the ultimate screen for the bike, but there is still a socket for Navigators. It was confusing from the onset, and only got worse.
Exploring the problems one at a time:
- Despite being a great piece of hardware with a clear, bright display, the information management on the TFT is a compromise: The top row of data can show only one of fuel remaining, MPG, trip-meter; it can’t combine any of them. The user has to scroll between them. There is no reason to limit display to one field when non-TFT systems can show multiple.
- It’s slow. Every tap feels like you’ve written a letter to Garmin and are waiting for a response from the postal service. It’s the performance of a $90 GPS, not a $900 GPS.
- United Stated bikes with TFTs only display miles, never kilometers. Users expect this switch to happen automatically when then cross the border, like it does on other premium bikes. Even with user settings, it’s not available on US models. BMW issued a software fix for international models, but it remains broken in some markets. User complaints have gone unanswered.
- Music support has many usability issues including the device playlists (such as automatic playlists generated by Apple Music) only work if every track has been explicitly downloaded into the library. Today’s users stream their music, they don’t waste time downloading.
- Connectivity in end-to-end system is complex and unpredictable. One must connect GPS -> Helmet, GPS -> Phone, Bike -> Helmet, Bike -> Phone. Results vary and are sensitive to the order that connections are established. Often times it just doesn’t work. Multiple YouTube videos attempt to cover these issues and provide guidance for how to correctly connect in the right order.
- The TFT was shipped without the ability for riders to upgrade its software, or firmware. Dealers are required to do this, and the process requires specialized equipment and a service bay. Updates can take up to 3 hours to apply, and sometimes fail, requiring repeated attempts. Dealers suffer real expense in taking a service bay and tech offline to do these updates and want to charge customers as a result. Customers feel like they’re paying to fix problems, which are often worsened with updates instead of made better. It’s frustrating for both dealerships and customers alike.
- The GPS features in the TFT lack things as basic as a route map; you get only turn-by-turn directions from your phone.
If you want full GPS functionality, you have to opt for the Navigator accessory. Do that, and you experience these problems:
A cockpit with layered displays, in which one can marginally occlude the other!
A broken Wonder Wheel, where input is now modal between devices. The Wonder Wheel input targets one screen until the user explicitly long-presses the MENU button to direct its input to the other screen. While this doesn’t sound bad, it can startle you if you are riding and go to make a quick adjustment with the Wonder Wheel, only to find that it does nothing because the wrong device has its focus. That’s horrible usability. These aren’t seams in the experience, they’re gaping chasms.
German Engineering Can Fix This Dumpster Fire
BMW has at least three options to give customers the phone-aware, modern electronics experience that they deserve, and that they pay for on premium BMW models. Each one is progressively more work for BMW, but also makes things progressively better.
Go back to the drawing board with Garmin and update the Navigator V and VI software to be as full-featured as the Zumo 595. This includes visual notifications for both calls and text messages. Ensure that media playback just works when an iPhone or Android device is plugged in without any hassle required from the user.
It’s important to add a button to the Navigator to activate Siri or Google Assistant. This is missing today, and it’s a miss for BMW at the most fundamental level. BMW must do all of these things to be considered competitive with electronics. Weakly competitive, but this at least gets them to the starting line with only a software update to the Navigator required.
Recognize that Apple Carplay and Android Auto are better than any solution that BMW or Garmin will ever build. These are what customers want. Other manufactures have leapfrogged BMW in this regard. Not just any manufacturers, but ones that BMW should be quite embarrassed to be trailing! Here are three examples:
Some of these manufacturers support both Carplay and Android Auto, and deployment began in 2017. Here we are in 2020 with no option for making life a ride and still being in touch on our BMWs.
BMW’s solution is to update the Navigator with Carplay and Android auto. This is a possibility over updating the TFT, because their TFT provides the core riding instrumentation. Unless they can find a way to cleverly split that TFT screen, a second display is required. The Navigator would be the ideal solution assuming that the Garmin hardware can support these mobile platforms, that connectivity to the phone is sufficient on BMW bikes to support it, and that BMW has the rights to implement it with or without Garmin’s help. The likelihood of all three of those assumptions proving true is slim, at best.
Ditch the Navigator and build a Carplay / Android Auto display. BMW has hundreds of thousands (million+?) of bikes out there with Navigator mounts and electronics plumbing already built into them. Some of these have Navigator units, some don’t. Every single one of them is a potential customer for a new device that BMW can partner to build: A display that plugs into the BMW-owned Navigator mount/interface and does nothing but provide a screen for Carplay or Android Auto.
It would need to be weatherproof, work with gloved fingers, and be powered by the Wonder Wheel on all models. BMW could charge $300-$500 for it. With cached maps, the GPS need would be solved. The benefits of Siri and Google Assistant would become available to riders equipped with this accessory.
Best of all, our software would update with new features on Apple’s and Google’s schedule, not on Garmin’s and BMW’s.
This electronics dumpster fire shouldn’t detract from the incredible riding experience that BMW motorcycles offer. They are some of the best-built bikes on the planet, in my experience. I have enjoyed tens of thousands of miles on them. The letdowns of their electronics didn’t keep me from buying a new model in 2020 and begrudgingly plugging my Navigator VI into it.
But if 2021 rolls around and BMW hasn’t done something to modernize their electronics suite to better integrate phones and smart assistants into our Motorrad lives, the next BMW purchase just might be at risk.