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Soon there will be no excuse for ignoring speed limits, if this new BMW is a glimpse into the future. Joshua Dowling reports.

BMW has invented the car that can read road signs – most of the time.

A tiny camera in the windscreen scans the road ahead for the posted speed limit. In case you’ve missed it, the global standard is a sign with black numbers inside a red circle and on a white background. BMW has, rather cleverly, come up with technology that can distinguish speed signs from trees and roadside advertising.

I was so keen to sample the system that I skipped the lunchbreak of sauerkraut and spicy sausages (hey, it was a small sacrifice) during the international media preview on the outskirts of Dresden and grabbed the key to a spare car.

Imagine my surprise when, having taken only one turn out of the driveway of the flash German castle, the very first sign I pointed the car at contradicted what the car was saying. Or, more to the point, the car didn’t agree with the sign that had been concreted into the ground.

The sign said the laneway behind the schloss was a 20 km/h zone but the car told me the road should be a 30 km/h zone.

Oops. Metal sign, one; speed-alert camera, zero. PR disaster? Only if every other journo made our wrong turn (they didn’t).

Ten minutes later, on a winding section of road nearby, the accuracy improved. The digital readout in the heads-up display in the windscreen changed as I drove past each sign. Perhaps the system wasn’t so silly after all.

It was time to get back to the schloss and gloat to the chief engineer – I mean check with the chief engineer – as to why I got the car to disagree with a real-life sign.

It turns out the BMW speed-alert system relies on the speeds stored on the car’s navigation system about 60% of the time. In that case, it is no more clever than many portable navigation devices that already do this.

But where the BMW system is different is that the speed-alert camera keeps an eye out for signs on roads that aren’t mapped, and BMW says this improves accuracy to about 95%. Presumably, the first lane I came to near the castle just happened to be among that 5%, or perhaps the sign was too high.

“It’s not yet perfect but it is very good,” says Johann Kistler, the project leader on the new BMW 7-Series. “We have tested this in many countries and we are very happy.”

BMW has even calibrated the system to take into account lower speed limits when it’s raining. “The car knows it’s raining because the wipers are on, so we made the speed-alert computer talk to this,” he says.

Significantly, the speed alert does not intervene and slow the car down. It is merely a warning system. BMW insists it does not want to take control away from the driver.

There were some hurdles along the way. BMW had to make sure the camera didn’t mistake a speed sign for a sign showing the maximum weight for trucks, which in Europe looks similar to a speed sign. And engineers had to make sure the speed-limit symbols on the backs of trucks didn’t trigger an alert.

“This took thousands and thousands of kilometres to get right, to make sure the system works in each environment,” he says.

Indeed, BMW is due to test the technology in Australia in the coming months. The test car has already been to China and Japan and is on its way here. BMW has heard about our variable speed-limit signs for school zones and wants to see if they outsmart the camera.

The speed-alert warning is one of a raft of new gadgets on the new BMW 7-Series limousine, due on sale in Australia next March priced from about $200,000. It will eventually make its way onto more affordable models, but it’s yet to be fitted to the flagship. Sadly, the whiz-bang speed-alert system won’t be available on the 7-Series for another 12 months until local testing is complete.

But there will be plenty of other stuff to keep owners – and their children, if they are allowed near a new 7-Series – occupied.

The new model can spot pedestrians at night, thanks to a heat-seeking camera. It will also be good for spotting kangaroos, providing they’re alive or, if not, still have some body heat left in them.

The BMW system differs from the Mercedes-Benz night vision. Both use infra-red beams but the Mercedes-Benz sees only what the headlights can see, whereas the BMW sees beyond the beam and in a heads-up display illuminates any humans or wildlife (as opposed to eliminates, that would be the James Bond version).

The new BMW 7-Series has more onboard cameras than it has tyres. In addition to the infra-red camera, speed-alert camera and blind-spot warning system, there are tiny side-view cameras on the corners of the front bumpers so you can see if you’re about to clean up any pedestrians/protesters as you leave the corporate car park.

The technology powerhouse also has onboard internet access for back-seat passengers when the car is moving and for the driver when the car is stopped. But don’t get too excited or alarmed. I tested the web connection on the way to dinner. It was slower than dial-up.

There is so much information about the new 7-Series to digest, the owner’s manual is 293 pages thick – and that’s the brief version. There’s more detail on the car’s onboard computer. Just like a mobile phone or a laptop, this BMW guides you through each function of the car step by step. There’s just one catch: you have to read the owner’s manual to find the “cheat” mode that gets the car to tell you all the important stuff.

BMW is so proud of its “Setup Wizard” that it is considering making the owner’s manual optional. This would probably save some weight from the car, not to mention a few trees.

The onboard instructions are stored on the car’s built-in 80 GB hard drive. About 10 GB of space is taken up by the navigation system, 8 GB is for the owner’s manual and there’s about 12 GB for storing music. The remaining space runs the car.

The previous 7-Series was said to be too smart for its own good. When we tested it six years ago it was so clever I couldn’t get the fancy new gear lever into “drive”, or scan radio frequencies because of a complicated cabin control system called iDrive. BMW replaced about 20 buttons with one knob that was as frustrating as it was potentially dangerous. BMW has continued to revise iDrive ever since with each new model – by fitting more buttons. We’ll get to that shortly.

In the end, I got 30 experts to try to do both. Among the guinea pigs I got to sample the car were highway patrol officers, driver training instructors and RTA policy makers. I took it to 10 hotels to try to get the car valet-parked.

No one could move it from the hotel driveway (after our story, BMW printed a small instruction leaflet to hand out to valets).

Determined to find somehow who could master the car without resorting to an hour-long demonstration (as was the norm for customers and media when collecting the car), I then rang a big university and asked for a genius.

They offered me the delightful Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. Like everyone else, he couldn’t crack the BMW 7-Series code.

But his 13-year-old son set the radio in a heartbeat.

At the time, we photographed the car with a cardboard cutout of Brains from the Thunderbirds 1960s TV show. It “told” the story but didn’t exactly go down a treat with BMW. My ears are still ringing.

Oh well, I guess this new car perhaps proves we might have had a point, because BMW has fixed everything we criticised on the old car. Not because we criticised it, mind you, but because we weren’t alone.

For starters, BMW has doubled – yes, doubled – the number of buttons in the cabin. And iDrive has some user-friendly switches around it (just like, ahem, Audi).

The dashboard is no longer shaped like a surfboard, and so it doesn’t take out your knees on the way in. And the styling is a little more conservative than before. The previous 7-Series signalled a new design direction for BMW. The company just happened to pick the most conservative vehicle class to do it in.

Of course, BMW designers look like geniuses now, but it wasn’t always the case. I asked the chief designer of the new car, Adrian Van Hooydonk, who also had a hand in the previous model, whether he was asked to tame the look of the latest model. “Oh man, I’m going to get that a lot tonight,” he said. “No, not at all. We just created the best-looking car we could.”

Surely it wasn’t as simple as that. Surely he must have heard someone in the staff canteen talking about all the flak the previous model received in its first few years on sale.

For the record, BMW holds internal design competitions between its styling houses around the world. In this case, BMW studios in California, Singapore and Munich pitched for the honour. And guess what? This one was done right under the noses of the biggest bosses inside BMW. Munich won.

At least at the launch of the new car, BMW finally acknowledged that the previous model wasn’t perfect. A PR operative might shudder at the thought, but to be frank, in this world of denial and tightly controlled information, the following comments were a relief.

“The previous BMW 7-Series was not without its controversy, but it nevertheless did make a statement. Despite healthy debate it was the most successful 7-Series to date,” said Ian Robertson, a member of the BMW board of management, sales and marketing, according to his business card. But the industry knows him as the first non-German to run BMW. He’s British. In fact, he’s so British that he used to run Rolls-Royce.

“You can’t deny the sales figures, and at least hopefully you can see we have addressed most of the issues raised with the previous model.”

The new 7-Series drives better (it’s noticeably smoother over bumps) but we’ll reserve judgement until we test it on local roads. But the early signs are good. The body is larger yet lighter, and the engines are more powerful yet more fuel-efficient.

The big question: in the current economic climate, will anyone buy one?

“There will always be room for cars like this,” said Robertson. “I’m not saying it’s recession-proof but we believe we have an attractive proposition.

“We have made improvements to efficiency that mean our customers can enjoy their cars knowing that they are leaving a minimal footprint on the environment for a car of this size.”

Limousines would always have a place, he said. “When CFCs were banned, that didn’t spell the end of the refrigerator industry.”

Joshua Dowling travelled to Germany as a guest of bmw Australia.

AT A GLANCE

BMW 7-series

- On sale: March 2009

- Price: To be confirmed but starting from about $200,000 and stretching to $360,000.

- Engines: The 740i is powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre six-cylinder (240 kW and 450 Nm) and the 750i is powered by a twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 (300 kW and 600 Nm). The 730i, powered by a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, is due for sale locally in late 2009.

- Consumption and emissions: 740i: 9.9 L/100 km and 232 g/km (the same as a four-cylinder Toyota Camry), 750i 11.4 L/100 km and 266 g/km (not much more than a V6 Commodore), 730i 7.2 L/100 km and 192 g/km (less than a hybrid Lexus limousine).

- 0 to 100 km/h: 740i: 7.8 seconds, 750i 6.5 seconds, 730i: 10.4 seconds.

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