BMW Car Club of America Roundel Editor Satch Carlson whispered in our ear recently about the new BMW M Laptimer app. He thought a review was in order, so here it is.
BMW M Laptimer App
by Michael Allen
BMW Car Club of America Roundel Editor Satch Carlson whispered in our ear recently about the new BMW M Laptimer app that interfaces with certain BMW vehicles to produce track related data. He thought a review was in order, so here it is. Data logging has been a tool of professional race teams and increasingly, club racers. But these systems are pricey for the everyday track day driver. Enter the Smart phone applications. These cost just dollars and many have free demonstration versions. They are packed with features similar to the professional in-car data logging systems but the low cost of entry makes them ideal for track day users who want to record video and data.
After downloading an application onto your smart phone or tablet, you then mount your device far forward in your car. To get the best signal pickup, suction the mount on the windshield. Ram Mount makes very stable vibration-free mounts. The app will recognize that you are at a track or you can load the track from a library of track maps made available by the developer or from your own library, assuming you have been there before and created a lap recording. Settings allow you to begin recording once movement or a certain speed is sensed by the app through the device’s GPS sensor. These apps are meant to be hands free and will operate on their own so that you can focus on your driving.
Following your run, the app will shut down on its own when you come to a stop. There are also settings to erase warm up and cool down laps, so you are left with the data and recording from your hot laps only. You will be able to see your times by lap with your preset reference lap being the fastest lap and receive data in the form of graphs and tables. If you have made a video recording through the app interface, you will be able to watch the video of your run with data overlaid on the video. You will see lap times, a track map with your position during the lap, RPMs, lap number and other data which can be selected or deselected. The video and data can be uploaded to the app developers’ servers for watching later on their websites or for sharing with friends. Users can upload the session data and video to their own computers for later processing and sharing via email or on YouTube. Read more in our How To on using data loggers and in our technology article reviewing the available apps.
These apps have been available for some time for both IOS and Android phones. Popular versions include Harry’s Laptimer, now for both iOS and Android, TrackAddict HD, from the developer of Racerender video editing software, Track Attack, a newer app, Race Chrono and Track Master. Many of these have free demo versions and even the full versions cost from just a few dollars up to about $35 or so. A good mount will cost less than $100 and you can also opt for an OBD II reader for about another hundred and a remote GPS receiver to improve your signal and allow mounting inboard in the car. The apps can be run without these additional hardware devices. The GPS receiver and OBD II readers will interface with your device wirelessly via Bluetooth technology. Your phone or tablet can be kept plugged in to the car charger during use. These apps do use a lot of power and also generate heat so one developer recommends mounting the device in the flow of an AC duct, assuming you are running your AC with your windows open during a hot lapping session.
The developers for these apps are very good about offering support for their use once purchased. There are frequent updates and upgrades. For example, Harry Schlangmann just released a new version of Harry’s Laptimer PetrolHead edition for Android which incorporates video along with data logging. Previously his app was pretty specific to just the iOS platform but he has been working hard to include Androids. Existing apps are constantly being improved upon and further developed. Websites and support forums are offered and questions are answered comprehensively and rapidly by the developers themselves.
The OBD II reader allows a good range of data to be read and incorporated in your data summaries and lap read outs. For example, you can pick up tachometer and horsepower data and have these displayed during playback. We spoke to these app developers about the new BMW M Laptimer App and they were salivating over the idea of being able to tap into all of the data available from the car’s engine control unit (ECU). More on this below.
Although highly capable and affordable data logging and video apps have been out for some time and are well supported by many of the developers, vehicle manufacturers are now beginning to enter the application market. Corvette recently produced an in-car video logger. And as far as BMW is concerned, back in June of 2013, at the introduction of the 2014 M6 Gran Coupe, Phil Johnston, Product Manager for the BMW Group Apps Platform and Paul Doersch, the U.S. Product Manager and Technical Lead for the M Power App, were present and introduced journalists and attendees to what was then called the BMW M Power App. The app became available for IOS in October of 2013 and is now called the BMW M Laptimer. Here is what it can record:
– GPS position
– Forward acceleration
– Lateral acceleration
– Acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h or 60 mph
– Accelerator pedal*
– Steering angle*
– Engine speed*
BMW advises users that after downloading the app from the APP Store, connect your iPhone to the BMW vehicle via the USB connector or the snap-in adapter, and then launch the app on the phone. Users will then be able to use the BMW iDrive controller and display to create recordings and use other features in the car. Analysis of a drive is performed on the iPhone after creating a recording in the car. Sensor data is only available for recording from BMW vehicles equipped with BMW Apps. BMW Apps are only available in vehicles with the Professional generation of the BMW navigation system in selected models since July 2012. BMW vehicles with older generations of the navigation system do not support recording throttle, RPM and fuel. These include some of the 1 and 3 series and all of the 5, 6, and 7 series, the X3, X5, X6, M5 and M6.
One expert, who did not want to be identified, labels the BMW M Laptimer app as having a “‘me too approach that does not fully use the opportunities an integrated approach like this would actually offer. For a car manufacturer, all data available on the car’s bus is available and not limited by the OBD II standard. The only value I see not available through OBD is brake pressure which needs to be derived from negative longitudinal acceleration for apps based on OBD II. While OBD delivers around 20 to 30 different values, there are typically several thousand available in the non-public car manufacturer protocols. So BMW does not use the potential at all.”
Until recently, the app developers have only had access to OBD II values. And these are limited. You can hear them veritably drooling over the prospect of being able to access all of the data available from a vehicle computer. And yet they seem frustrated with BMW. Weston Pawlowski, developer of TrackAddict HD and RaceRender software, says that for drivers who want to connect to their vehicle, “to capture additional data (RPM, throttle position, temperatures, etc.), it is possible for many 1996 and newer cars via a selection of compatible OBD-II interface devices. The OBD-II option is a great universal solution that typically centers around engine data and related sensors. However, the BMW app does appear to offer some differences with its access to BMW-specific data. In particular, it looks like they capture Steering Angle data, which I think could be very interesting for motorsports, and that’s something that’s not available from standardized OBD-II data parameters” Similarly, Gamaliel Aguilar-Gamez, developer of Track Attack, adds “Because it is so closely integrated with BMW cars, I imagine the level of granularity on sampling will be great.”
The Bottom Line
One subject matter expert weighs in on whether the BMW M Laptimer has added anything of value to the existing app market. “The main problem with apps like this is they are marketing driven. Nice pictures, low value, limited functionality, and most important: one time shots. These projects get a certain budget and go into maintenance mode afterwards - no regular improvements and nobody takes care of them once they are finished in a first version. None of these apps have a business case beyond outside image building. This app is probably better than other apps provided by car manufacturers but, on the functionality side, it is probably covering 20% or less of existing app functionality.”
Pawlowski adds “it's good to have BMW’s marketing reach bringing more interest towards these types of apps and capabilities. There are already well established apps that offer many similar capabilities, and potentially more. Most notably, video recording and data overlay, live telemetry streaming, and a very broad range of vehicle and track compatibility.”
Aguilar-Gamez adds “that there isn’t much that is super differentiated on top of the fact that the addressable market is SUPER small: It only works with BMW cars that support BMW apps – these are just the newer models. I can’t imagine this being more than 5% of the addressable ‘track go-er’ market. I think it is a tactic to focus on BMW owner loyalty and satisfaction, which probably will work to a certain extent. BMW owners love their BMWs and the manufacturer just wants to feed that. Now, if they opened this app up to be used for other makes and models as a way to woo owners of competitor cars, that might be more interesting and disruptive to app makers like Harry and me.”
Of course we need to qualify these opinions, as they are coming from direct competitors, but we also cannot deny that the BMW M Laptimer app is only fully functional for a very small percentage of BMW only owners at this time. There are some nice possibilities to access computer data not previously available, such as steering angle and brake pedal pressure. These parameters allow for the types of analyses only provided by hardwired professional data loggers, but in a handy-to-use and free phone app. But, still, there are some important functions that are just plain missing in the BMW app. Most important is the ability to video record and then overlay data upon playback. Probably the most useful feature of any data logging system is the ability to watch your session later and view the lap times and other data in the context of what you were actually doing during a particular lap. The BMW app does not have this capability and so you probably want to go with one of the existing apps available for both iOS and Android. Oh, did we mention that the BMW app is only available for iOS? Hey, what about us Android people?
By the way, we made numerous attempts to communicate with BMW media relations both via email and telephone. BMW chose not to respond to our requests for information about the BMW APPs, even after dropping the great Satch Carlson’s name. Satch? How dare they!