Change the Oil, Upgrade the Software

Deep under the hood of BMW's iDrive system is a Java engine that allows the car's programming to be continually kept up to date

It's a classic case of German engineering meeting Silicon Valley ingenuity. And, no, it's not the match made in hipster heaven -- BMW sports cars and Apple Computer (AAPL ) iPod music players.

Plenty of BMW and digital-music aficionados know about the new adapters that Beemer owners can install that allow them to use their iPods with their car stereos. But few know that another Silicon Valley company, Sun Microsystems (SUNW ), also is providing computer technology to new BMWs. Moreover, Sun's technology could ultimately be far more important than a little iPod to the automotive industry, allowing carmakers to change the way they design internal computer systems.

"Our business is network computing," says Alan Brenner, vice-president of the Mobile & Consumer Systems Group at Sun. In this case, think of the car as the computer network.


  Several new lines of BMWs are shipping with built-in software called iDrive. Found in BMW's 7 Series, 6 Series, and 5 Series cars, iDrive controls a car's audio system, navigation, and things like the cabin's temperature. The stylish display panel allows drivers to manipulate all those systems from a single knob, rather than a dashboard full of buttons.

Slick stuff, no doubt. Though early versions of iDrive received mixed reviews from BMW buyers, it's what's inside the system that has techies excited. iDrive contains a programming architecture for car systems called Top Level Architecture. It was designed by another German company, Siemens VDO Automotive. Siemens (SI ), in turn, based its TLA on Sun's Java programming platform.

Siemens executives say its TLA could reduce the cost of software for cars by more than 50%. "We believe this will allow [car manufacturers] to do work on their electronics that has never been done before," says Roland Busch, CEO of Siemens Infotainment Solutions. BMW is also working with Microsoft (MSFT ) on iDrive technology in the area of navigation display.

The TLA is more flexible than what cars have used before -- usually something created at the factory and written in the traditional C programming language. In the past, once a car left the plant, it was impossible to add more software features, such as a new navigation system. As cars become more and more computerized, that can doom the owner of a 5-year-old car to the use of 5-year-old software. While that's not so old for your favorite sedan, it's ancient when it comes to software.


  The TLA allows a car's computer guts to stay current even while the car ages. BMW can continually write updates and add-ons that work together without testing, thanks to the underlying Java. Every time a car owner visits a BMW dealer, new software, like a new navigation system, can be added. Partners that know how to program in Java could also write software to run on iDrive. A rental-car company, for example, could automatically send information such as updated mileage rates to its customer via an on-board computer.

Sun engineers hope their Java will do for cars what it has already done for corporate computer networks. First developed in the early 1990s by famed programmer James Gosling and a group of Sun engineers, Java was intended for interactive TV. Needless to say, that didn't turn out to be the Next Big Thing. But the World Wide Web was.

Not long after Netscape Communications popularized the Web browser, Sun introduced Java as an ideal way to program for the Internet. It allowed for better security than traditional programming languages, yet it was more flexible and could run on many different kinds of computer operating systems.


  Today, nearly every major software company other than Microsoft uses Java to program everything from PCs to giant financial systems for multinational companies. Java also has found its way into cell phones, allowing customers to do things like download new ring tones or check e-mail. It adds similar flexibility to a car's computer system.

BMW is no stranger to Silicon Valley technology. Since 1998, it has kept more than a dozen engineers in the BMW Technology Office in Palo Alto, Calif., the heart of the Valley. The office's single goal is to ferret out new technology BMW could use in its cars. The engineers there, for example, came up with the idea of wedding the iPod to the Beemer.

BMW's Valley engineers also created something called Miniature Heads-Up Display Technology, which was used by sailors on the BMW Oracle Racing Team in the last America's Cup. The technology allowed the sailors to get a wireless display of information like the boat's speed right in their sunglasses.

Though he drives a Mercedes, the BMW project has to make Sun CEO Scott McNealy happy. After all, it combines two of his loves -- cars and computers. McNealy's father was once vice-chairman of American Motor Co., the perennial No. 4 to Detroit's Big Three. And for more than two decades, the corporate computing pioneer has been telling anyone who would listen that Sun's motto is "the network is the computer."

Only this time, the network has wheels.

By Jim Kerstetter in Silicon Valley

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