2023 BMW i7 Prototype First Drive Review: Hands-Free, Emissions-Free Luxury

BMW's seventh-gen 7 Series brings a new Highway Assistant suite with extended hands-free operation.

The new BMW i7 EV isn't a standalone model -- it's part of the larger 2023 7 Series range that'll debut on April 20. Aside from its electric powertrain, the i7 will have all the same features and technologies as every other 7 Series, including a new driver-assistance suite that brings long-distance hands-free driving to the BMW lineup for the first time.

Called Highway Assistant, this Level 2 driving aid works on premapped stretches of US freeways at speeds up to 85 mph. BMW calls Highway Assistant a "Level 2 Plus" technology, since it has enhanced capabilities that allow for hands-free operation for longer periods of time, similar to General Motors' Super Cruise or Ford's new BlueCruise systems.

The operation is simple. While driving on Germany's A8 autobahn west of Munich, I press the on/off button on the left of the steering wheel to activate the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems. When a steering wheel icon in the digital gauge cluster appears, the i7 is ready to take the wheel. At this point, the i7 is working as a standard Level 2 driver-assistance system -- something BMW already offers -- where the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping functions work together. Here, I can lightly keep my hands on the wheel and the i7 does the heavy lifting. Unlike other setups, however, the wheel doesn't need to register torque from driver inputs to keep working. As long as it detects me touching the wheel in some way, it stays on.

Pressing the Mode button on the steering wheel lets me put the i7 in its full Highway Assistant setting, at which point I can fully let go of the wheel. As long as cameras mounted in the gauge cluster detect my eyes looking forward, the hands-free operation remains active. I can even look away for brief periods of time -- as long as it takes to touch a climate control or change the radio station -- and the system won't deactivate. If I look away for longer, I get an audible warning to take over, and if I don't respond, the system will automatically shut off and slow the i7 to a stop.

None of this is revolutionary; Super Cruise and BlueCruise do the exact same thing. But what's great about BMW's tech is that it allows for an increased level of driver forgiveness. If I need to quickly speed up or slow down, I can make a small input to the throttle or brake and the Highway Assistant won't immediately deactivate. And even if I override it for a prolonged time -- like when a merging semi truck cuts me off and I need to go hard on the brakes -- the i7 just goes back to its standard L2 operation rather than shutting the whole thing down. Tap the Mode button again, and I'm back on my hands-free way.

Everything here is serene. The i7 accelerates and brakes smoothly and the car doesn't ping-pong between the lane markers. When it's time to change lanes, I can give the stalk one tap in my desired direction and, if the car detects it's safe to do so, change lanes as requested. Many of these lane-change systems still have an issue speeding up quick enough to pass slower-moving traffic -- an especially hazardous situation when I'm merging into the fast-as-you-want left lane on an unrestricted section of autobahn. But again, I can just give the throttle a quick hit if needed and the i7 will respond without deactivating the Highway Assistant tech.

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