Car Tunes

8-track tape, cassette, MiniDisc, DAT. They all have two things in common. You don’t find them in new cars anymore. And, like lots of other technologies that have come and gone, car radios have easily outlasted them. Actually, add CD to that list. Within a few years, that’ll be gone. But is AM/FM radio on the endangered species list too?

It seems inconceivable. For starters, it’s a dirt-cheap feature to put on the window sticker. But so was cassette. At some point, probably for no other reason than to prove how hip they are, some car makers will probably advertise that they no longer offer radios. And many customers probably won’t care.

In a Deloitte survey of car buyers aged 19 to 31, 59% said that in-car connectivity is the most important aspect of a car’s interior. And 72% wanted to use smartphone apps in the car. These buyers don’t care about AM/FM; they are tuned into customized streams such as Pandora. Pandora has deals with most car makers and not far behind are streaming rivals such as Slacker, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

Clearly, new cars will offer streaming music services; the question is whether they piggyback into onto your smartphone, using it for communication, or whether they develop proprietary vehicle hotspots. The former makes sense; why reinvent the wheel when everyone already has one (a smartphone, not a wheel) in their pocket. But the latter is appealing to car makers because it allows ways to distinguish one system over another and lets them bundle infotainment into their highly profitable in-dash GPS systems. We’re already seeing diverse solutions, and that will continue until someone finally gets it right, and everyone else copies it.

The other issue still up in the air is driver distraction. Car makers certainly aren’t getting any guidance from the divine powers in Washington DC. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently cancelled the 3rd annual Distracted Driving Summit and – unbelievably, in my opinion – said that hands-free calling “isn’t a big problem in America” and called for more study. Seeing that as a green light, car makers are quickly inventing the “Connected Car.” Consider – I kid you not - a 17-inch touchscreen display with four USB ports and Internet access coming to your teenage daughter’s next car. Radio? Are you serious? She’ll be so busy updating her Facebook page that she won’t have time to listen to radio.

A final comment: talking on a cellphone while driving increases your crash or near-crash risk by 1.3 times; physically dialing increases risk by 2.8 times; texting increases risk by 20 times. Odds to consider while you’re hurtling down the road.

So, happy motoring, and keep the shiny side up. And hopefully, your 20-inch wheels off of my ribcage.