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Radio Seeks Its Future in the Vehicle

What happens when the car becomes a browser and the driver becomes a passenger?

Autonomous car concept. Driverless vehicle.
CREDIT: Getty Images/metamorworks

Leading U.S. radio organizations continue to work, publicly and behind the scenes, to secure a place of prominence for their offerings in future center-stack consoles of connected cars.

Broadcast stations and their online signals already must share space in a content ecosystem that includes smart audio options accessorized with infotainment management systems like Apple Carplay and Google Android Auto that form a bridge between smartphones and the car.

Amazon, too, is aiming to get its Alexa personal assistant into the car. Amazon Auto is expected to be available later this year as an after-market accessory. The company’s Alexa Auto division hasn’t announced any content delivery plans, but: “You can bet they are looking at it,” one industry observer told Radio World.

Amazon, like Google and Apple, eventually wants to embed its systems into the dash entertainment box, analysts say. This alone will be an important change in how consumers use audio platforms; but beyond that are the many implications of the rise of fully autonomous vehicles.

Honda’s prototype Dream Drive is an example of how mobile technology is expected to become more integrated with the car. This image shows control of a Honda Odyssey FM tuner through an iPad-based app. Consultant John Ellis explains, “When Honda/Connected Travel work with a given broadcaster, they can detect their local stations and ‘Feature’ them in the ‘Featured Stations’ list. The customer/passenger will also see their vehicle’s radio pre-sets across the top of the screen in the application.”

RUBBING ELBOWS

Influential radio executives have spent several years networking and building strategic relationships with carmakers, their “tier one” suppliers and infotainment system developers, according to people familiar with the process.

Significant players from the radio and auto industries were at CES in January for a special reception hosted by NAB and GenIVI, a consortium of auto experts dedicated to open software for infotainment systems in the automotive space. Participants were treated to dinner one night and then a networking event at Bellagio Hotel and Casino the next that included about 1,000 guests.

In April, NAB will host an “In-Vehicle Experience” at its Las Vegas show, according to a press release. “See firsthand from today’s leading manufacturers, technologists and content creators why connected vehicles are being lauded as the next horizon for content consumption,” the announcement states. Topics include the connected car, voice-activation, ATSC 3.0 and HD Radio.

“What we want to do is leverage the NAB Show and the fullness of the technology and the education, and layer in the most profound endpoint, which is the automobile,” said John Ellis, founder and managing director of Ellis and Associates. “And then begin a cross collaboration on this new ecosystem of automobile.”

Ellis says car companies will have an “increased presence” at the NAB Show. “They’ll be involved in panel sessions and technology demonstrations, possibly even show floor demonstrations.”

Meanwhile, Xperi Corp. keeps pushing to expand the availability of HD Radio in cars; it also plans a commercial launch this year of its DTS Connected Radio Platform, which pairs broadcast programming with IP-delivered content via a modem or smartphone. That system is one of several “hybrid” radio platforms under development. Xperi has indicated it has at least one carmaker signed up for DTS Connected Radio but has yet to identify it.

Dream Drive integration of Entercom’s Radio.com streaming radio service, including 235 local radio stations.

TRANSFORMATION

Steve Newberry, NAB’s executive VP for strategic planning/special events, said radio broadcasters are committed to retaining a dominant position in the automobile.

“We are taking a lot of meetings. We think there are a lot of opportunities for radio and television in the connected car of the future. Part of that is partnering with representatives from the auto industry. We are pleased that more and more auto companies are seeing the value in radio,” Newberry said.   

The broadcast group’s Auto Initiative Committee, which was formed in 2016 and consists of a mix of small and large broadcast groups, continues its work, Newberry said, and is making progress bonding with automakers.

“We have projects underway with OEMs and Avis/Budget looking for synergies and have expanded our focus to include voice control.”

Fred Jacobs, an advisor to the Auto Initiative Committee, said during a recent NAB podcast that broadcasters understand they are no longer competing only with other radio stations in their coverage area.

“Radio is competing with everything and everybody. The competitive arena for content is quickly expanding. We have to connect radio with new technology. It’s really a transformation for the future,” he said. “Really massive changes are coming with the introduction of metadata, digital technology and the visual component in the enabled car.”

One observer involved with the latest developments told Radio World he believes some automakers might now regret their decision to allow Android Auto and Apple Carplay into their vehicles. “The consumers love the experience, so it’s harder now for the automakers to develop their own dashboard solution,” this observer said.

John Ellis, who consults NAB on dashboard strategy and was global technologist for Ford’s connected car business, said automakers are being lobbied heavily with dashboard entertainment and information options from a variety of interest groups. He noted that car companies “still control the dash,” with final say about what goes in the cars they build.

[“Radio Abides and Radio Thrives”]

“The question is becoming more complex though. Now there is this construct of the consumer with the ability — technology enabled — to dictate that relationship. The consumer has a voice in what happens in the dash, which is really new territory,” Ellis said. “How do we make the consumer to want to keep interacting with broadcast? Those decisions will be driven by content.”

In addition, he said, radio should keep its eye on the opportunities presented by autonomous vehicles and gaining the attention of a driver no longer engaged with the road.

“It really opens up the opportunity for the audience to interact with the media,” he said. “Think about this whole wireless construct in the connected car. Think about NPR or any other content house, and think about how much more they could do with an audience in a vehicle that’s moving but with no distraction. Those are the collaboration opportunities we are exploring.”

The “passenger economy” is something NAB is focusing on as more autonomous vehicles appear on the roads, NAB officials say.

“The passenger economy is set to be a significant player in the monetization and business case for the first wave of this new mode of transportation,” the association stated in a press release about its NAB Show session.

Newberry expanded on the theme: “Clearly, the more we learn about our listeners, the more we can build that deeper connection and then more easily provide the types of content they want. We can provide a lot of information about our listeners. The more the automakers know about their customers and the more we can learn about our listeners means everyone will win.”

URGENCY

There is a sense of urgency. Observers say radio must move quickly to avoid being relegated to the background of the dash in next-generation cars.

Roger Lanctot, director of automotive connected mobility for Strategy Analytics, said that at CES this winter he saw demos of in-dash systems that ignored the radio or even excluded it during presentations.

“It’s clear that some infotainment system designers are either taking radio for granted or forgetting about the radio entirely instead of making it a focal point. That’s a problem,” Lanctot said.

Lanctot’s observations come at a time when digital assistants and better metadata will allow broadcasts to be searched and found more easily with a voice request, he said.

“The car is really being turned into a browser. In essence, these personal assistants will become the browsing aid, and that changes the value proposition of radio listening,” Lanctot said.

[TxDOT Creates Connected Car Task Force]

“The biggest significance of radio listening is that it is local content, which is ironic, because most of these connectivity platforms in the car being developed are trying to replicate what the radio creates for free, which is local news, sports, weather and other local information. Even the advertising will be locally relevant.”

Current smartphone connection systems like Apple Carplay and Android Auto have reduced radio to a simple “icon” that is a part of a greater infotainment ecosystem, Lanctot said. They quickly are establishing more control over the dashboard experience.

“There is a certain de facto sense of leadership and control being achieved by Google and Apple. They have certification authority over the vast majority of head units in the marketplace at this time. They have created a very big pool of users and are seen as the quickest path to market now for any kind of app,” he said.

Lanctot said anecdotal evidence about dashboard developments collected from CES points to the modern audio marketplace becoming increasingly fragmented in the connected car.

“Samsung had a digital dashboard experience in their booth. I left after a time and never saw a radio-related screen. It seems the suppliers to the auto industry are obsessed with doing everything else but radio. The new systems can do all of these cool things like control your garage door, control the lights in the house, make a Skype call and even connect to your refrigerator,” he said.

This all comes at a time when radio is becoming more of a visual medium in the vehicle, Lanctot said, with a lot of groundwork being done to the “plumbing of radio” to make it more of a visual experience.

“At CES I just didn’t see a widespread recognition of the work radio has been doing,” he said. “There seems to be a limited understanding of how the dash can be influenced.”

Lanctot cited General Motors and Honda for their work in trying to gain a better understanding of content consumption in the car, work that will help define what future infotainment systems look like. He said Ford expects to place 5G modems in its entire fleet of vehicles within three years.

A game-changer will be when auto manufacturers embed the infotainment system in the car, Lanctot said.

“The transition to the embedded system marks a significant turning point. It would seem logical that instead of maintaining these two parallel platforms, their own and the projected smartphone platform, that car companies would prefer one embedded system,” he said. “That’s the transition we are in right now. And the 5G rollout will accelerate that transition.”

Lanctot expects to see embedded infotainment systems, most likely based on Android Auto, to begin appearing in connected cars by 2020. “I would expect Volvo to be the first to launch it,” he said.   

Analysts say the improved connectivity with 5G will allow even greater in-car smart mobility options.

Honda Dream Drive prototype delivers a new in-vehicle experience for drivers and passengers.

HONDA DREAM DRIVE

At the recent CES 2019, Honda demo’ed the latest version of its prototype Dream Drive, which it calls the auto industry’s “first integrated driver and passenger infotainment, commerce, services and rewards dashboards within the vehicle environment.” It was developed in collaboration with Connected Travel, a connected vehicle platform and application services company.

Dream Drive uses mobile-based “dashboards” — the driver dashboard demonstrates payment technology to enable drivers to pay for things like fuel, movie tickets and parking, make restaurant reservations and order food, while the passenger dashboard lets occupants play games, watch movies, access other content and control the radio and cabin features.

“Moreover, customers will have access to purchase Honda Dream Drive content, movie or event tickets, order ahead and a variety of other convenience options provided by Honda’s collaborators,” the company said. Among its partners for these dashboards are iHeartRadio and Entercom/Radio.com as well as companies like Atom Tickets, Chevron, Grubhub, Parkopedia, Phillips 66, AAA and the LEGO Group.

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