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New BMW gives drivers ‘gesture control’

2016 BMW 7 Series2016 BMW 7 Series
2016 BMW 7 SeriesCourtesy of BMW

Probably one of the biggest races going on in the auto industry is around technology. From developing self-driving cars to WiFi-connected automobiles, manufacturers are pushing hard to outdo each other. On Wednesday, BMW(BMW)upped the ante when it unveiled its new top-of-the-line 7 series – which comes equipped with “gesture control” and “self-parking” functionality.

Before you get excited thinking about how you might gesture when, say, a driver cuts you off, this “gesture control” functionality is limited. Instead of turning a knob or touching a screen, the driver is able to gesture with a hand or finger, tracing in the air a circle the right for raising the entertainment system’s volume. Tracing a circle to the left lowers the volume. Other hand gestures, captured by a visual sensor in the 7 Series cabin, can be edited to control a limited number of additional functions, such as accepting or declining a phone call.

The self-parking capability will enable drivers to have their car parked – without them actually being behind the wheel – or even in the car. Using a special key fob, the driver can guide the 7 Series into a garage or parking space from outside the car – a feature that may intrigue owners even more than it helps them. Which perhaps is the point.

“We don’t ever want our customers to grow bored,” Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, said earlier this year. In the past four years, customer loyalty —the rate at which BMW owners choose the same brand for their next car—has grown to 60% from 52%. (The average loyalty rate for all automotive brands in the U.S. ranges between 42 and 48%.) Clearly, BMW is hoping these only-in-BMW tech capabilities will step up these numbers even more.

But BMW engineers sheepishly concede that gesture control might prove problematic for demonstrative or passionate drivers who tend to talk with their hands – whether behind the wheel or not. As for the safety self-parking cars, BMW says they’ll be operating at extremely low speeds, guided by technology and sensing devices that arguably would be far less likely to hit a person or strike a fixed object than a careless or distracted driver trying to squeeze into a narrow space.

Like innovations introduced on earlier generations of 7 Series, “gesture control” capabilities soon could migrate to smaller, less costly BMW models – if BMW owners prove to be enthusiastic. But that is a big “if.” BMW executives acknowledge they have no idea how hand gestures will be received by their customers.

Other automakers, including Audi and Volvo, already are working to bring “self parking” capability to cars in the U.S. Both BMW’s self-parking and gesture control features were demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, and they generated huge excitement from auto industry writers. But whether owners will agree that these devices justify the car’s price tag — $75,000 and up — remains to be seen.

The 7 series also comes with technology that could appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers. The car will be built with several components made from carbon fiber, an advanced material, helping to reduce the weight of the vehicle by nearly 300 pounds and thus reducing the energy needed to propel it.

BMW’s iDrive rotary control system for infotainment and other equipment, introduced in a 2001 7 Series, for instance, was fraught with glitches, prompted howls of complaint and had to be revamped. The automaker persevered, others copied the system – and today, while still not perfect, iDrive and similar technologies are in common use.

“Competition brings out the best in both companies,” said Rob Moran, a U.S. spokesman for Mercedes-Benz, in an interview. “We always look at what the competition has.” Like BMW, Daimler uses S Class as the platform for introducing its best ideas in technology and luxury. The current S Class, for example, is the first to be equipped with various scents pumped into the cabin, a kind of automotive aromatherapy.

Today’s 7 Series, normally equipped with a six-cylinder twin turbo engine, can cost more than $150,000 with BMW’s V12 engine. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz S Class — the leader in the luxury market — starts at about $95,000 with a V8 – but the price can grow to more than $200,000 with a V12 and AMG performance options. BMW won’t announce pricing for its new model until the fall.

The sixth generation 7 Series will be shown publicly for the first time at the Frankfurt auto show in Germany in September. This week journalists are testing the vehicle at a BMW track in Miramas, France. As the top seller of luxury vehicles globally, BMW is counting on the new car to close the gap between it and the S Class, the No. 1 seller and reigning monarch in the elite sedan category.

In 2014, BMW sold 9,744 copies of the 7 Series in the U.S., while Mercedes sold more than 25,000 S Class models – but S Class was new in 2014, while the 7 Series was in its sixth year since the debut in November, 2008 – the year the global financial crisis exploded, damping demand for luxury sedans. Daimler, based in Stuttgart, and Munich-based BMW continue to study one another intently, with close attention to vehicle features, financing and dealer services that might give them an edge.

Volkswagen AG’s Audi division is coming up fast as well with its A8 luxury sedan. Last year, Audi sold nearly 6,000 A8s in the U.S., at a retail price starting from about $77,400.With cars gaining the capability to assist drivers and take over tasks once solely the responsibility of humans, all eyes will be on the contest among 7 Series and its competitors to prove their mettle with the coolest and most relevant new features.