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Automakers tuning out traditional in-car radios

Automakers tuning out traditional in-car radios

Automakers have killed the cassette player, and CD players are taking a back seat to Bluetooth-connected iPhones and in-car radios.

The in-car radio, with its dials and knobs, isn’t signing off yet. But it’s past its prime in the eyes of some automakers, and most aren’t prepared to spend much time or money tinkering with it. Instead, they’re focusing on the next generation of in-car entertainment, such as Web browsing and music streaming. Startup automaker Detroit Electric plans to be the first without a radio when it rolls out its first car in August — audio will be delivered via smartphone.

“AM and FM as a delivering mechanism isn’t going to be the most important in cars anymore,” said Thilo Koslowski, a vice president at technology research firm Gartner Inc.

“By 2020, I feel very confident that many consumers will consume radio content through avenues other than terrestrial broadcast.”

In other words, drivers may still be listening to radio stations in their cars, but they’ll get them in different ways: Connected to the Internet through their smartphones or directly through their car’s infotainment system.

Koslowski calls this “digital lifestyle convergence” — bringing to automobiles the music files, texts, phone calls, Web-based radio and other content that people are accustomed to getting on their smartphones, iPads and laptop computers.

It’s already becoming a reality: Drivers of Fords and Lincolns can access several popular smartphone applications through the MyFord Touch dashboard interface. General Motors Co. says it will soon offer high-speed 4G mobile-Internet capabilities inside its cars. Despite the competition, Ed Cohen, vice president of measurement innovation at media and marketing research firm Arbitron Inc., says 90 percent of adults age 25 to 54 listen to the radio weekly, and it’s still the top choice among drivers for in-car entertainment.

“Yes, are we going away from the traditional radio in the center stack with dials? By having more choices in there, is that going to change things a lot?” Cohen said in a telephone interview. “I think the automakers haven’t fully figured it out yet.”

Customers seek all options

Ford says its customers want it all: AM/FM radio, satellite radio and tunes they’ve selected on their MP3 players.

“We’re trying to give them lots of different options,” said Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronics systems at Ford.

While Ford has “no plans of eliminating” AM/FM compatibility, Buczkowski acknowledged the face of radio in its cars has changed: Tuning is accessed through the central MyFord Touch screen and not a typical push-button or dial tuner.

One of the strongest cases against abandoning terrestrial radio airwaves in favor of Wi-Fi or 4G-streaming is the current limits of new technologies: In most U.S. markets, there is inconsistent wireless coverage; and using cellphone data plans is becoming more costly as telecommunications companies tighten unlimited options.

By contrast, terrestrial radio is free and can be heard, within its limits, without interference or interruption.

But Koslowski says eventually it will make more sense to listen to the radio through Wi-Fi or data plans, which allow listeners to tap into thousands of stations worldwide.

“You can listen to Internet radio in San Francisco,” he said. “And some stations buffer content, so even if you drop out of coverage, there won’t be the interruption.”

“In the future you may use the Cloud,” he said, referring to remote services. “And I foresee cellphone carriers getting more creative with their data plans.”

CD players may disappear

The CD player became irrelevant to many drivers when carmakers introduced USB ports into in-dash audio systems. USB, or jump drives, allows drivers to stream their music files from smartphones and iPods.

CDs are still the second most-popular choice, after radio, for in-car entertainment, according to the latest Arbitron data. But some automakers already are dumping them from some models — Chevy’s Sonic RS, for example — to save space and weight. Some analysts predict most new cars — except those targeted at older buyers — will not have CD players by the end of the decade.

But John Canali, a senior analyst specializing in automotive multimedia at Boston-based Strategy Analytics, doesn’t see radio going in the same direction.

“You just don’t want to alienate customers,” he said.

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