“You'll be using this Aston Martin DB 5 with modifications. Now, pay attention please. Windscreen: bulletproof, as are the side and rear windows. Revolving number plates naturally, valid all countries…”

“Anything else?”

“Well, I won't keep you for more than an hour or so, if you give me your undivided attention…”
— James Bond being briefed on the operation of his new car by “Q” in the movie Goldfinger

James Bond needs lots of gadgets in his car so he can save us from diabolical fiends who want to take over the world.

How many features and gadgets does everyone else need?

That's being asked increasingly by all sorts of people in the industry.

Auto makers and suppliers seem hell-bent on offering more and more new features to consumers, from seats that massage your back to telematics systems that read your e-mail to you while you drive.

But as the number and complexity of these new-fangled features grows, new questions are arising about how much value they truly offer, and if they're becoming too complicated for the average consumer-especially since most still can't program their home VCR.

Suddenly issues that used to concern only aircraft manufacturers and pilots, like human-machine interfaces, driver “workload” and ergonomic issues, have now moved into vehicle cockpits, for better or worse.

Front and center in the debate is BMW AG's new 7 Series, one of the most sophisticated — and complicated — cars ever mass-produced. Critics praise the $70,000 car's ride and handling. But its controversial iDrive system and complicated electronic shift controls leave even technically savvy drivers wondering if BMW didn't go overboard on the new flagship.

Because BMW is one of the auto industry's most watched and benchmarked brands, the success or failure of many of its features could heavily influence whether they ever see the light of day in lower-priced, higher-volume vehicles.

In Goldfinger, even 007 is noticeably miffed when Q demands an hour of his “undivided attention” to explain the proper operation of his modified Aston Martin.

Should it be a surprise then, that some dealers are concerned that real-life customers might also get angry and leave BMW for another brand rather than be forced to spend an hour learning the intricacies of the new 7 Series?

So far, with 7 Series models newly on sale in the U.S., dealers are not reporting serious problems, most likely because if you can get the salesman to program in your favorite radio stations, the other basic functions of the iDrive can be figured out, operated by voice activation, or ignored.

“A few people are concerned that it may be complex to drive, but most understand that they only have to use what they want to use or feel comfortable using,” says Don Crevier of Crevier BMW dealership in Santa Ana, CA.

He adds, “For normal, every day driving, the technology is very easy to use. Frankly, I'm 57, just learned how to turn a computer on last year, and I find it very easy to drive.”

BMW, which has had so much success in the past decade developing one home-run vehicle after another, seems surprised by some of the negative response it's getting, although many insiders admit they knew there would be some controversy.

At stake here is not only BMW's drive to match the vaunted Mercedes S-Class in global sales, but possibly billions worth of new electronic comfort and convenience systems now being developed by suppliers for the mass market.

Flawed consumer research possibly caused “overtechnologizing of today's vehicles, says Robert Lutz, General Motors Corp.'s vice chairman in charge of new product development

“Wherever the blame lies, I don't think it's helping any of us to sell cars,” he told the 2002 NADA convention. “It takes time to train all the sales people to explain it to the customers, and even then a lot of the customers don't want it to begin with. It's not a selling point.”

Auto makers may be trying too hard to sell vehicles with electronic gimmicks instead of focusing on delivering products that look great and are considered a good value, says Lutz.

“Every vehicle that has an Internet connection but lacks an emotionally compelling design is an unsold vehicle with an Internet connection,” he tells dealers.

And in what sounds like a direct swipe at BMW's iDrive, he says: “I'd like to know who decided it was a good thing to have overly complex multi-function displays that require a multi-step operation to activate something that normally is a twist of a knob or a flick of switch.”

It would be easy to dismiss Lutz's comments as those of an old-fashioned 70-year-old, but he's one auto executive who is as comfortable in an aircraft cockpit as he is in a car. He's a veteran pilot who flies his own jet fighter in his spare time; so he's not easily confused by a complex cockpit.

Lutz's concerns have spawned a renewed effort at GM to attack “over-contenting” and maximize the perceived value of current and future vehicles. (Some critics argue, though, that it's just an excuse to cut costs.)

GM isn't out to eliminate techy features, only features that potential buyers consider of questionable value for the price, says Andy Norton, product research director at GM's Business Decision Support Center.

A key research tool is called a “vehicle configurator” which allows focus group members to choose among 120 options, then tell researchers what they really want and what they don't value. The price for each option is spelled out, and focus group members have to stay within a specified budget.

“The goal is to reach a better balance between features, content and price,” says Norton.

He says a study of entry-level luxury buyers shows strong acceptance for steering wheels that electrically tilt and telescope, but little interest in a $450 lumbar seat massager.

Norton also says there's low interest level in the ability to send and receive faxes from a vehicle, either. Don't expect to see GM spending much time there.

Not everyone is convinced some sort of content crisis is brewing, or that BMW is way off track.

Will Boddie, Ford Motor Co.'s Vice President of Global Core Engineering, says demand varies greatly by geographic region. He argues that even though there may be less interest in the U.S., there is strong demand for techy features that differentiate high-end vehicles in Japan and Western Europe.

Focus group studies done in the U.S. show that specific groups such as business people who drive 25,000 to 35,000 miles per year are very interested in electronic bells and whistles such as satellite navigation and receiving e-mail in their cars.

Suppliers also argue that their technologies are all designed to reduce complexity, not increase it, and that many critics will change their minds once they get used to some of the new features.

“I don't see buyers out there that are buying technology (for technology's sake), they're looking for real value. If there's real value, then they're interested in it,” says John Kill, vice president of product development at Visteon Corp.

“How to iDrive”

Journalist Georg Kacher, in Britain's “Car” magazine reports a BMW executive confessed to him (after five glasses of wine) that he had to drive the 745i 3,000 miles before he fully understood iDrive.

The basics are simple: a knob on the central console controls a monitor on the dashboard. The controller can be moved in eight separate directions or “compass points” corresponding with vehicle systems and 700 different functions.

The four main programs, labeled Communications (telephone), Navigation (guidance, etc.), Entertainment (radio, CD player) and Climate (heat, AC, air distribution) are easy enough to understand and access.

The four “secondary” menus are at “diagonal” positions of the compass and include BMW assist, (roadside assistance, and other functions), OB Data (on-board computer and maintenance information) Help (just that) and Settings (activation and deactivation of vehicle settings like traction control). These require a special 45-degree jog of the controller knob and are more difficult to access and navigate.

Programming radio station pre-sets or deactivating the traction control are not simple, intuitive tasks.

Of nearly three dozen journalists, only a few said they fully understood iDrive after driving the car more than 300 miles during a press preview.

Others complained about a complicated starting sequence and electric stalk shifter, which makes it almost impossible to give the car to a valet parker without an impromptu lecture. In fact, BMW even includes instruction sheets in the glove box for that purpose.