Why BMW is betting on the cloud?

We are pretty certain that in about 10 odd years, autonomous driving is more or less going to be a reality! As developers the key goal here is to, create a fundamentally different relationship with cars and driving in general.


Major car companies have predicted this transition over the years and few of them have been reacting to this change with the same degree of urgency. A few months back, BMW hosted its Innovation Days at its technology office in Chicago, where the company showcased the current state of its connectivity services and laid out its vision for the future.

BMW Autonomous cars
Image Source. Credit: bmw . com . au

Over the years and after much permutations & combinations BMW has decided that it wants to retain full control over the in-car experience and not outsource this feature to another tech firm. Although the company offers assistance for the Apple Carplay, it has no intentions of supporting the Android Auto anytime soon. But BMW firmly believes that its job as a premium brand is to serve its customers the best experience and owning that segment is the best way to move forward.

We work with the latest and greatest technology and tools with the goal of integrating our product, our cars, with the digital lifestyle of our customers,” BMW’s VP of Digital Products and Services Dieter May said during a small press dinner ahead of the event. “We think our cars need to play well with [our customers’] digital lifestyle.

BMW now has close to 150 people operating from its Chicago office, which aligns with its other tech offices based at Shanghai, Tokyo and Mountain View. The core of this Chicago team switched over from Nokia when BMW acquired Nokia’s software team. This core team has had its fair share of experience in mobile, cloud and internet services which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise to build and customize this experience.

What we do here is something that’s new in the automotive industry,” May said. “We established a new way of working. We have challenges, of course, because we have long vehicle cycles, whereas the internet industry and the consumer electronics industry is very fast. So we need to build that bridge. This is part of our goal here. Also, the software life cycle and the tools that are being used in the automotive industry are different from the ones that are being used in the digital world and the internet industry. But that’s why we brought cloud technology, cloud expertise into this company.

On the contrary it might seem easy for BMW to adopt existing platforms like CarPlay, but thats not how the company works. Instead it is pairing up with the likes of Microsoft to help them bring new additions into its cars. For now its just the basics like your car’s infotainment systems displaying your appointments and mails. Although none of them would display a Microsoft logo when you would use them. The idea here is far deeper and perhaps work with other partners too; yet retain the feeling of interacting with BMW directly, not a third-party service.

Why BMW is betting on cloud

That also means that the company is looking at how it can integrate voice assistants. The idea of integrating “Alexa” or “Hey Google” doesn’t really fit in with the concept of a premium brand. It’ll be interesting to see how BMW and others will handle this because drivers will want to be able to use their favorite personal assistant in their cars, too.

Once you have a connected car, you also suddenly get lots of analytics back from how drivers interact with the infotainment system. Traditionally, a car manufacturer would build an infotainment system, maybe do some user tests, tweak it, and wait for the reviews to come in. Then, in a year or two, the next version would hopefully be better (though the driver would be stuck with the old system for the life of the car).
Now, using the data it gets back from the car, BMW gets a constant flow of feedback, and its software team can immediately act upon this because it is also able to push updated software into the cloud and — if necessary — to the car. Indeed, a BMW engineer told us that the company has already shipped 260 updates this year. There was also a lot of talk about minimal viable products. That doesn’t sound very premium, of course, but May acknowledged that it’s something its customers may have to get used to.
To serve close to 1 million users on its various platforms, BMW obviously needs a partner in the cloud and the company decided to go with Microsoft’s Azure Cloud as the technical foundation. BMW clearly has done a deep study with regards to Microsoft’s vision on Azure and liked what it saw. But it’s also worth noting that one of BMW’s major growth markets right now is China, and Azure has a substantial presence there with two regions in the country.

Currently, BMW runs its global operations from three Azure data centers (one each in the U.S., Europe and China). It integrates its core services with those from third-party vendors, too. Those include the likes of Weather.com for — you guessed it — weather data and Twilio for sending reminders to a driver’s phone, for example. On top of that, BMW also makes heavy use of Azure’s reporting features and Microsoft’s Power BI charting tool.

Why BMW is betting on cloud

In addition, though, BMW also still runs its own legacy data centers, mostly for handling customer accounts. Those systems work well for the time being. This BMW-owned infrastructure also handles remote service commands to its cars. Some BMW workloads also run on AWS, but it’s unclear what exactly those are or if the company is only using AWS as a fallback or for development and testing.

Make no mistake, all of this work and the features they enable are great, but the company is doing this in preparation for the arrival of fully autonomous cars. When that happens and drivers can suddenly use their drive time for productivity and entertainment, that’s a huge market that suddenly opens up.

If as a car manufacturer, you don’t own your relationship with your customer, then somebody else will. But in a future where car ownership may look very different, that’s where companies like BMW will be able to make a lot of money. The smart players in this space know that, which is what’s driving companies like BMW to become software shops in addition to car builders.

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