A century of interior innovation

10 min reading time
With almost 100 years of pushing the envelope of engineering and design innovation, BMW steering and control technology has come a long way. Read on as we recap the highlights and historical BMW innovations, from the very first BMW 3/15 to the all new BMW iX – a string of ideas that have come to define the unique BMW driving experience.

2 September 2021

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Where it all began: the BMW 3/15 (1929)

A century’s worth of BMW history – with everything a driver could possibly want.

All stories must begin somewhere, and for us this beginning can be found almost 100 years ago as the very first BMW 3/15 saw the day of light in 1929 — the BMW that started it all. 

Typical of its time, its steering concept was relatively simple, and featured little more than the basics: a prominent steering wheel took up most of the driver’s view, supported by a simple dashboard and a centrally placed ignition. Still, one thing was clear already: focus was put on drivers and their needs, something which would come to play a crucial role in the years to come.

The BMW 3/15: the BMW that started it all

Introducing the driver-oriented instrument panel: the BMW Turbo Show Car (1972)

Fast forward to the fast-paced seventies, and things would really begin to speed up for BMW design and engineering. When BMW introduced the world to the by-now truly classic 1972 BMW Turbo show car, a nod to the BMW image as a premium and sporty brand for real drivers found its way to the Turbo’s interior, too: the driver-oriented instrument panel.

This moment is crucial. The introduction of driver-oriented car cockpit elements was a powerful statement of intent. By shifting, or indeed tilting, the central control elements of the cockpit in the direction of the driver, BMW made its position very clear: BMW cars are built for the driving experience, and while the co-driver or other passengers should never feel excluded, this shift of attention towards the driver behind the wheel made this position unmistakably clear.

“The driver-oriented cockpit is an expression of how BMW cars were and are built with the driver in mind,” says Felix Staudacher, Head of tactile UI BMW Group Design. “BMW control elements and technology do not simply have practical purposes; they need to work for a greater purpose in terms of design, aesthetics and user interaction to offer the driver a complete experience of control, and of course, the joy they are looking for when driving a BMW. This defines us, and makes us special.”

The BMW Turbo: a classic in oh-so-many ways
BMW control elements and technology do not simply have practical purposes [...] they need to work for a greater purpose in terms of design, aesthetics and user interaction to offer the driver a complete experience of control.
Felix Staudacher

Head of tactile UI BMW Group Design


Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel: the BMW 7 Series E38 (1994)

With the launch of the third generation of the BMW 7 Series in 1994, BMW took things one step further, bundling everything any driver would need in one place, right at the tip of their fingers. 

The introduction of buttons on the steering wheel itself in the 1994 flagship BMW 7 Series gave drivers full control of everything from entertainment to phone calls, cruise control, switching between driving modes, and many more customizable options.

The E38 was also the first BMW with the “Dreh-Druckknopf”, a forerunner of the iDrive Controller. The E38’s twist-and-push knob was used to control the first display screen used in a BMW, for navigation and for handling menu selections – all concepts that would later find their home in the fully fledged iDrive concept, just seven years down the road (see below).

This further solidified the “drivers first”- approach as a trademark of BMW interior design philosophy, and allowed BMW owners to focus on what essentially matters: keeping their eyes on the road, and their hands on the wheel, without any unnecessary distractions, no matter their driving needs.

The 1994 BMW 7 Series: all at hand

Everything coming together: the BMW 7 Series E65 (2001)

Another important addition was voice control, which allowed BMW drivers to effortlessly communicate for example navigation input to the center console for the very first time.

This first saw the light of day in the 2001 BMW 7 Series, which became a major milestone in its own right.

The E65 became the first car on the world market to fully embody the new BMW ergonomic principle oben anzeigen, unten bedienen – or “show up top, control down below”. 

The concept allowed the driver to keep their eyes on the road without having to look down at the controls on the instrument panel at all – everything was now intuitively placed within reach with a clear logic in favor of the driver’s needs, with the new iDrive as the crown jewel.  

As a result, the E65 is considered the bearer of the very first iteration of the modern, driver-oriented car cockpit. This in turn meant that for the first time since 1975, a BMW was offered without some kind of geometrically angled instrument panel. The concepts which had found their way to drivers with the 1972 Turbo, and later in production thanks to the 1975 BMW 3 Series, were now regarded as outdated. Instead, the fourth generation of the iconic BMW 7 Series limousine was given a completely symmetrical instrument panel, when seen from above. 

Bringing it all together: the 2001 E65

I drive, you drive, we all drive with iDrive: BMW 7 Series E65 (2001)

Taking it up a notch: welcome to the iDrive

All said and done, it was another major innovation, also introduced in the 2001 BMW 7 Series, that perhaps more than anything else came to mark the most radical shift thus far for BMW interior design: the introduction of iDrive. 

Ushering in a hitherto completely unseen rethink of interior functionality, the iDrive Controller allowed to offset the increasing complexity of modern vehicle operation systems with a simple-to-use, ergonomic and intuitive alternative. As the BMW credo of putting drivers and driving experiences first was still the deciding factor in the design process, researchers were faced with a dilemma. As cars became increasingly advanced, drivers had more distractions to handle. A simple count showed BMW experts that drivers had to deal with 35 indicator and 65 service elements from their seat, but by introducing the now-iconic iDrive Controller and the adjacent iDrive control system to manage functionalities across the board, right at the driver’s right hand, that number could be reduced to 15 and 28, respectively. 

The introduction of iDrive had a very hands-on and practical reasoning. But by introducing a single control element that was easy to use and with a very clear control hierarchy, interior designers were also given more freedom to rethink the entire driving experience and approach to human-car interaction. With the classic center console gear mount now gone, a more “open” car cockpit design could be achieved, giving the entire BMW fascia and interior a more luxurious and spacious touch. 

Today, this breakaway moment is heralded as a stroke of genius, and has come to define BMW interior design perhaps more than anything else – all while once again emphasizing the underlying principles of designing driving experiences that focus on the drivers and their growing needs.


Heads up! the BMW 5 Series E60 (2003)

This was further emphasized by the introduction of the very first head-up display to be included in a German production car, which projected all needed information directly to the windshield, right in front of the driver’s eyes. Two years had now gone by, and the first HUD was introduced with the launch of the 2003 BMW 5 Series, the E60.

“The addition of the head-up display, supported by voice control, meant that we broadened the choice for drivers to take control,” says Sascha Kalus, Head of advanced UX/UI BMW Group Design. “We showed that a BMW has everything you need for the perfect driving experience. You may not need everything all the time, but you can choose it if you want. It’s about this freedom, the opportunities and the experience this kind of technology gives you as a driver.”

The addition of the head-up display, supported by voice control, meant that we broadened the choice for drivers to take control
Sascha Kalus

Head of advanced UX/UI BMW Group Design

The 2003 BMW 5 Series saw the first-ever head-up display in a German-built production car

Going truly digital: BMW Live Cockpit, BMW Operating System 7 and BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant (2018)

Recent years have seen a rapid development of a number of digital additions to the BMW in-cockpit experience. 

Of these, the replacement of analogue gauges in favour of highly intuitive digital display technologies is perhaps the most groundbreaking. To achieve this, the digital design, which combines 2D and 3D graphics, is tailored perfectly to the user’s needs. The aim is to focus the driver’s attention on the given driving situation, while always providing the relevant information.

The concept, called the BMW Live Cockpit, allows for an emotional and purist driver-car interaction experience, making intelligent use of entirely digital display clusters, navigation and entertainment systems. These in turn can be controlled and interacted with by using the iDrive Controller, or gesture and even voice control for true multimodal operationality and fast access. To support voice interaction, the BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant was introduced, giving drivers an AI-powered, personal “co-driver” capable of fulfilling a range of everyday driving needs and practical in-car functionalities through intuitive and customizable voice commands.

And as is the case with most other digital products, the BMW Live Cockpit components, BMW Operating System 7 and individual features can be customized and regularly updated via Remote Software Upgrades (➜ Read more: Full guide to BMW software updates). And of course, it can all be conveniently managed, with many functionalities accessible directly by smartphone in the My BMW App.

With the BMW Live Cockpit, a fully digital driving experience saw the light of day

What’s next is already here: the all-new BMW iDrive (2021)

So, where are we now? And what comes next? To a certain extent, we already know. 

With the launch of the all-new BMW iDrive in 2021, nearly 100 years of interior design, technology innovations and engineering excellence come together to offer tomorrow’s ever-more demanding drivers a truly state-of-the-art driving experience, geared for an increasingly digital future.

The new BMW iDrive will be part of the new interior concept and design featured in the all new BMW iX (➜ Read more: What's your reason not to change?), but its features will also find their way to future models. Powering the new BMW iDrive will be the updated BMW Operating System 8.

The BMW iX represents the zenith of BMW interior design, but with the introduction of the all new BMW iDrive, technology, materials and user experience will merge to create a truly seamless and multimodal driving experience that has never been seen before.

As for the BMW iX interior, digital components have been bundled in an entirely new way with the BMW iX hexagonal steering wheel and its curved display, which sits on an invisible “free-floating”support, neatly tilted in the driver’s favor. Digital functionalities are seamlessly and effortlessly integrated with premium materials like the touch-enabled wooden panels, following the philosophy of designing a comfortable and reduced space for humans to feel at ease and at home, even when on the road. Remaining control elements are staged and crafted with pure glass, and ensure precise and comfortable interaction while driving.

“Modernity arises when we are able to do things that we couldn’t before,” says Staudacher. “With the BMW iX, we are introducing a way of working with highly advanced digital solutions that feel homely and natural for the driver to use. We have focused on only the essentials to feed the BMW iX reduced aesthetic. But what is there has very clear and intuitive uses for the driver. It’s not ‘just’ about tech. It’s about tech that serves a real purpose, and understanding how to integrate this the best way possible for drivers and passengers.” 

While control elements in the BMW iX have as such been stripped down to essentials in an overall completely uncluttered cabin, the technology used is supremely intelligent, and above all, represents the next stage in achieving the perfect symbiosis between driver, design, functionality, materials, and overall experience. 

None of this is a coincidence. Through almost 100 years of literally putting the driver in the driver's seat, BMW has been on a mission to create sheer, undistracted driving pleasure for anyone who takes their seat behind the wheel, with attention even to the slightest details. The result is a design philosophy that champions drivers and their needs, takes into account how demands develop over time, and seeks answers that help push mobility into the future through joyful experiences. 

“We cannot forget that driving is ultimately about emotions,” says Staudacher. “The driver should feel pleasure from driving, but also from controlling their car. It needs to be fun, and offer that ‘special’ experience. Always.”

Modernity arises when we are able to do things that we couldn’t before.
Felix Staudacher

Head of tactile UI BMW Group Design

Photos: BMW Group Archiv/BMW; Author: David Barnwell