BMW’s Internal Startup Revs Connected Cars

Holding fast to "the ultimate driving experience," BMW launched the BMW Technology Corporation to handle digital development.

A new vehicle's creation process, from conception to rolling out on a dealership lot, is usually quite long—five to seven years, in some cases. All the while, consumer technology is changing at a breakneck speed that poses a challenge to auto manufacturers: How to continuously update cars with the latest technology so they're not outdated the moment they hit the lot?

In 2014, BMW came up with a novel solution: It launched its own internal startup. The Chicago-based BMW Technology Corporation specializes in agile software development, creating and regularly updating the software that powers every BMW vehicle.

A New Starting Point

“Look at the old model that auto manufacturers used to think about: You build a vehicle, and when it leaves the factory, that's it. Now we think of that as being the starting point for when the car starts to live," says Randy Cavaiani, Director of Product Marketing at BMW Technology Corporation.

But that starting point is just that—the start. Maintenance throughout a vehicle's life now extends to the apps and services under the hood and in the dash. That includes both company-built and third-party apps.

The whole objective was to accelerate BMW's digital services and create seamless services—not only from BMW internal entities, but also from third-party entities relevant to consumers

— Randy Cavaiani, Director of Product Marketing, BMW Technology Corporation

Imagine, for example, that a BMW driver scheduling a dinner date wants to automatically sync smartphone directions to the car's navigation system and receive a time-to-leave notification to avoid traffic. That's where BMW Technology Corporation comes in.

“The whole objective was to accelerate BMW's digital services and create seamless services—not only from BMW internal entities, but also from third-party entities relevant to consumers," Cavaiani says.

With six to eight current-model BMW vehicles at their disposal, the team at BMW Technology constantly tests new internal and third-party software. Each year, the team works on three major releases that are coordinated with downstream BMW divisions, including marketing, an independent digital testing and evaluation group, and BMW dealers themselves. In between, they're also working on “dot" releases—minor software improvements to fix bugs—as well as “hot fixes," where BMW Technology employees push over-the-air updates that require immediate attention.

“We don't do a lot of them, but it's also something we don't need approval for from the independent testing team. We can push them out transparently to the consumer," Cavaiani says.

The Agile Automobile

For BMW Technology, agile development techniques play a crucial role in developing and updating in-car digital services. At the startup's headquarters, multiple Scrum teams—comprising a product owner, an engineering master and several software coders—take charge of different digital services.

Because of the lengthy car-development lifecycle, BMW Technology doesn't take what Cavaiani calls an “extreme agile" approach; it can't just push out a new piece of software on a whim. But it does embrace the minimum viable product model, the common method that startups use to push products and services out to market.

“Because we have the ability to make changes rapidly, we can get dealer and customer feedback quickly," he says. “We get something out there that enables fast feedback, and because of the way we've developed the [in-car tech] platform, we're able to iterate quickly."

That says that as strong as our brand is, we need to provide those services to stay relevant with consumers. And the more we can personalize those so that those services are unique to BMW, the greater the impact on the overall organization.

— Randy Cavaiani, Director of Product Marketing, BMW Technology Corporation

Go Digital, Stay Relevant

That's a key selling point for today's drivers. According to a 2015 McKinsey report on car manufacturers and connected consumers, 37 percent of survey respondents said they'd be willing to switch car brands if their current cars didn't have the digital services they needed. That was an increase from 20 percent in 2014.

It's no coincidence that BMW also created its internal technology team in 2014, the same year the automaker introduced a digital roadmap with the goal of connecting people's digital lives to their vehicular ones. According to Cavaiani, when BMW conducted its own survey modeled on McKinsey's, more than 60 percent of BMW drivers said they would switch brands if the digital services they wanted weren't inside BMW cars.

“That says that as strong as our brand is, we need to provide those services to stay relevant with consumers," Cavaiani says. “And the more we can personalize those so that those services are unique to BMW, the greater the impact on the overall organization.”
 

Images courtesy of BMW Group
Andrew Zaleski
By Andrew Zaleski | October 11, 2017

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