The Corner Office: October 2014

October 1, 2014

Peter SmythIs it a Marathon or Is It a Dash?

The evolution of the car radio into an infotainment and communications center continues at a brisk pace. During the past year, we have seen both forward and backward looking decisions as all of the actors in the automotive space jockey for proper position.

AM radio has been banned by BMW from their electric i3 and i8 EV, even though other electrics and hybrids found a way to eliminate the interference.  General Motors has removed HD radio from some truck and car models; added it to some others and given off contradictory signals.

What does this mean for radio’s future in the car? Bluntly, probably not that much. These two developments could be a harbinger of bad things to come or they could simply be another bump in the road as the auto companies explore the way forward. The center stack, as it is called, has become the home for so much more than the simple radio that used to take up that space.

In the past year, we have seen the deployment of in-car wifi as well as in car 4G LTE modems. This has opened up a new dashboard function called “advanced driver assist”.  That’s technospeak for smart sensors that will activate the brake if there is an obstruction behind you as you back up, or even avoid a rear-end collision by bringing your car to a rapid, safe stop mere feet away from the guy in front of you who slammed on his brakes.

These functions are the foundational elements of the autonomous or self-driving car. No flying cars like the Jetsons yet, but the self-driving car is somewhere out there in the foreseeable future. And why is that significant for radio? Because all of those computer-aided electronics and communications will also run through the center stack.

Automotive engineers not only have to develop an in-dash entertainment system that is easy and intuitive for real people, but they now have to absorb and manage an ongoing stream of data to and from the car, networks and other intelligent cars. The amount of computing power, sophistication and machine intelligence required to do all of this is growing each day.

So, car types have a lot more on their plate than radio reception and ease and safety of use while driving. They have big plans for the center stack, and are in a global competition not only with each other, but with Apple, Google and the big wireless players. How does this all shake out, and what is broadcast radio’s place? Are we now part of a larger universe called “audio”? Should we be streaming?  What about time-shifting? Podcasts? How about the Artist Experience in HD Radio?
For all of these reasons and questions, I am making sure that Greater Media is well-represented at the upcoming DASH Conference in Detroit on October 15-16. Last year, it was an eye-opening experience.  It is an opportunity to get outside of ourselves and our radio-centric view of the world, hear how the other industries who have a stake in the future of the car dashboard are viewing the last twelve months’ progress, and get an idea of what their priorities are for the next year. When we are all moving quickly, much can be lost unless we take the time to sit in the same room and listen to one another.  We need to know what the stakes are and refine our expectations for the future. We cannot take our historic place in the car for granted any longer; the latest estimates are that there will be 10 million connected cars on the highway by 2017. That is only three years from now.

That’s ten million and three reasons why DASH is so important.