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Shuman Eyes Evolving Digital Dash

Auto-related consultant says dashboard changes present opportunities for radio

Valerie Shuman discusses the connected car at Arbitron Client Conference.
credit: Photo courtesy Arbitron
CHICAGO — Valerie Shuman has worked in the automotive space for more than 20 years. As a management consultant and an executive of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association, Shuman is right in the middle of the evolving digital dashboard discussion.

She’s worked on standards efforts for intelligent transportation systems, and helped Navteq transition from delivering map content via CD-ROM to an online content delivery system.

Shuman was helping plan CVTA’s fall conference in Novi, Mich., when Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson caught up with her to discuss the connected car and radio’s place in the digital dash.

RW: In addition to being the principal of the Shuman Consulting Group, you’re vice president of industry programs for the Connected Vehicle Trade Association. Please tell us about this group.

Shuman: The association is a not-for-profit dedicated to the deployment of connected vehicles. When we say “connected vehicles,” we’re actually talking about cars talking to cars and cars talking to infrastructure. A lot of it is [centered] around safety types of applications and solutions.

The CVTA believes that the way to get these systems out there is to make connections between the people who need to be connected at the business level, to help those networks happen and … serve as a meeting point for the ecosystem as it evolves.

RW: So car capabilities of the future and safety issues?

Shuman: Right. There’s a lot of different pieces to all of that. Some pieces you’re seeing out there already, things like maintaining headway from the car in front of you, and lane-change type of things where your car looks around and says, “There’s a car coming. Don’t change lanes.” Those kinds of things typically are systems that exist within the vehicle itself. … There are radar and all kinds of other cool technologies that make those happen.

There’s another set of capabilities that can happen if the cars can talk to each other. They can tell each other where they are in some very advanced and very specific ways. Say you’re coming up to a traffic light. Somebody else blows [through] the light. You wouldn’t have had any way of knowing that he was going to do that, but your car heard his car say, “Hey, I’m coming through.” And you get a warning that says, “I know the light turned green, but wait a minute.” Obviously, no one’s encouraging anybody else to blow lights, but there are situations like that. …

Perhaps someone else is coming up behind you real fast and they may not be able to stop. Their car can help them stop by recognizing where the other car is, and say, “Wait a minute. That guy’s going 45 miles an hour. At this speed, there’s no way we’re going to stop if we don’t hit the brakes now,” and let the driver know, “Hey, mister, get on the brakes.” Or in the more advanced cases, hit the brakes for you.

The other piece of this that gets pretty exciting is there’s a lot that can be done if the cars are talking to the roadside. If your car can talk to the traffic light and know, “It’s going to be red in three seconds. Don’t try to make it through. You’re not going to get through.”

RW: All this is being talked about, and some pieces of it are being developed?

Shuman: You’re starting to see the pieces that don’t require cars to talk to other cars — the systems that can be run on a car. I’m sure you’ve seen the advertisements for back-up assistance, so you’re not going to run into the shopping cart when you start pulling out of your slot at the grocery store.

There are those kinds of things that are already out there. You can buy them.

And there are these other things that require a much more complicated system, because as you can imagine, there’s a lot of technology and policy and standards that have to go into it if you’re going to get cars talking to cars. Those are under test. The Federal Highway Safety Administration has work going on, and every major car manufacturer is working with them one way or another. There’s work going on in other countries as well, including Japan, Europe and Korea.

RW: How does radio fit into all this?

Shuman: Where radio comes in is the other definition of connected car — the one that is less about safety and more about entertainment and convenience. [It’s] all those things that allow people to bring their connected lifestyle along with them when they’re driving, the same way that they bring their connected lifestyle with them everywhere else. …

There’s an interest in connecting your smartphone to your car. There’s an interest in having the car itself have connections to the outside world that allow you to use things. So there’s a lot of new technologies that are getting put in place. …

One of the things that you can do now is get access to lots of other media. So our friends in the streaming radio business and the satellite radio business are jumping all over this opportunity to serve the consumer.

Where radio lands is sort of right in the middle. Radio already is in the car. The fun part is to look at the new opportunities and see what new things can be done while remaining interesting to consumers in the face of new competition for the consumer’s attention while he’s in that car.

RW: Who are radio’s competitors in the dash now and who could be there years from now?

Shuman: It’s the streaming radio folks, so the folks who are bringing information into the car over cellular connections like Pandora, Spotify and certainly SiriusXM. And you know there are upcoming additional folks in the streaming radio space — Apple iTunes iRadio has announced that they’re coming in. I think it’s reasonable to expect a continued interest by folks in getting into the business of providing consumers with what they think consumers want.

Audio entertainment is absolutely a part of what today’s consumers want in their vehicles.

RW: In every car at CES, when their big-screen infotainment system would come up, Pandora was on the first display. How can AM/FM stations make sure they’re on that first screen that pops up and not buried in a menu that you have to keep tapping to get to?

Shuman: The most fundamental answer to that is making sure you are of value to your consumers. If the consumers want to have access to that content easily, they will let their car manufacturers know because they’ll complain if they can’t get to it.

If consumers aren’t using it and the feedback that the car companies get is, “Well, you know, X percent of consumers still use this, but pretty much everyone else is using the other stuff,” well, then it kind of starts to fall off the big-screen. It really comes down to staying interesting to your customers, which is a fundamental business thing that you’re supposed to be doing anyway.

RW: You’re in touch with the automakers. Do you talk to them about what they’re hearing from consumers, what they want for infotainment in general and radio specifically in the car?

Shuman: You don’t talk a lot about radio in the automotive space. I know that is never a warm and fuzzy sounding thing when I say that to a radio person. But from the consumer’s perspective, cars come with tires, doors and radios. They don’t really come in and say, “Is the car going to have a radio?” They assume that there’s going to be a radio in it. What they are coming in and saying is: “Does it have all of this new stuff? Can I play my Pandora? Will I be able to sync my phone? Does it have this new functionality?”

We’re seeing that very, very strongly. Of the people who buy these systems, a majority say that the system was a deciding factor for them to buy that car.

From a car manufacturer’s perspective, when they hear from their dealers that people are coming on the lot and saying, “I want the car that has the Ford Sync in it. I don’t know which car it is, I just want the one with the Ford Sync in it,” that is a very, very big deal.

That’s why you’re seeing so many of these systems getting pushed out so fast, because consumers have asked for them. Car manufacturers are, of course, going to respond to what their customers say they want.

RW: Are consumers talking about HD Radio at all? More automakers are including it in more of their product lines.

Shuman: In terms of what are consumers saying, I have not personally done a study. I think there are folks out there who have done that and would defer to them about the latest feedback they’re getting.

In terms of what the car manufacturers are saying, the feedback I get, and this is anecdotal and casual, but as I tell my friends, “Hey, I’m working with some FM broadcasters. There is this idea that, of course you would go HD because the natural progression of things is from analog to digital. Everything’s going digital, right?” Which, of course, is not the perspective in the radio space necessarily, but you certainly do share that type of idea on the car side.

The other thing that HD does have, which is appealing right now, is that as the car manufacturers are putting together these systems with polished-looking screens, HD is able to fit into that environment pretty nicely. It looks good and it has some functionality that lends itself to integrating some of those things in ways that are useful. I think, to give credit where credit is due, is that iBiquity has done a really large load of work promoting their solution to the automakers and really getting in front of them and giving them a strong awareness of it.

RW: Being debated within the radio industry is: Do consumers know they have HD Radio in the dash? Some station owners are wrestling with how can they make consumers more aware of HD Radio so they listen to the digital stations and not just plug in their iPod or listen to Pandora or satellite radio.

Shuman: That kind of goes right back to that whole discussion of, there’s competition there now. If you watch a car ad, you will see them promote lots of screens that have Pandora and HD Radio on them. If you do that enough, consumers start to pay attention.

There is definitely a challenge in staying in front of consumers and how things are perceived. Everybody fights that battle every day.

RW: You took part in an NAB Broadcast Engineering Conference session this spring; the panelists agreed it’s a “Wild West” in the dashboard right now, with automakers and app developers and device makers all grappling with connectivity. Every automaker is implementing the digital dash differently.

Shuman: The thing to remember about all this is even with the enormous amount of buzz and excitement, it’s very early days. iPhones have only been out since 2007. That’s two car cycles. It takes about three years to spec and build a totally new car model.

You can get technology in there a little faster than that, depending on how you design things. But Ford was really in the right place at the right time with their Sync system because that came out right about that time. But not all of the other car manufacturers had something like that, and Sync was first out of the box to the consumer.

Six or seven years in car time is not very much time. In consumer electronics time, of course, it’s a billion years ago.

It’s really, really early; so there have been a lot of new systems that have come out very quickly, but it’s going to take a little time for people to figure out exactly what consumers are doing with all of this stuff that we’re giving them, and exactly what they are going to value.

RW: Given all the change in the dash, will AM and FM always be there?

Shuman: It comes right back to that point, does the consumer want you there? If nobody ever turns on their FM radio, then one day you will go the way of the 8-track. If, everybody keeps turning on their FM radio, then, why would you take away something your customer wants?

RW: Love the 8-track reference…

Shuman: As long as you’ve got your consumer saying, “Yup, I want that,” then you’re good. If the studies start coming back, and we’re discovering that 99.9 percent of Americans never touch that dial, then you’ve got a problem. But, I think we’re a long, long way from that.

And I think it’s too, who are your consumers, what are you providing them, are they finding value in it. … At the end of the day let’s remember that you’re supposed to have your eyes on the road. One of the reasons that audio entertainment is such a big deal in the car is because you don’t have to look at it.

RW: Ford is pulling back a little on the whiz-bang features of Sync and returning the radio knob because people want it. What do you think about that?

Shuman: One of the hardest parts [to design] is that human-machine interface. You’re trying to maneuver through traffic and you’re also trying to pick your station from a menu. If you look across the different systems that are in the market right now, there’s a pretty diverse range of interfaces. You have touch interfaces, voice, gesture, knobs, buttons, screens, you name it. People are trying all kinds of things to get to something that is easy to use.

Speaking as someone who has watched this evolve over the last two decades, that’s really hard. You’d think, and as important as it is, and as hard as we’ve all been working on it, somebody would have knocked it out of the park. … When you see a situation where someone says “Alright, fine, we’ll go back to the thing we know people know how to use, that’s not a total shocker.

RW: Switching to the FM chip, Sprint has incorporated FM capability in two HTC model smartphones and says more are coming. What are the implications for radio in the car?

Shuman: I don’t have a huge opinion-type answer to that. I think it’s another way for people to listen to the radio. The question, again, comes right back to, will consumers use it? You can put all the chips you want in anything you want, but, it doesn’t mean that consumers are going to push the button.

RW: A harsh reality …

Shuman: I spent a lot of time on the front lines in private-sector companies trying to make money, and I’ve also seen a lot of these companies … fail. You really have to keep a very clear eye on what your customer is doing, because if your customer isn’t going to do what you want them to do, or, you don’t have a value proposition — a business model that plays out well over time — it’s not going to work.

RW: How did you get into this line of work? You’ve been involved with marketing for awhile. Have you always been connected with the car?

Shuman: My activities in this are 110 percent serendipity. When I was starting out, my first summer as a summer intern, I ended up getting a job with a company that was closely affiliated with Navteq, one of the digital map providers. Nokia bought Navteq a couple of years ago.

In order to sell digital maps, you needed a market to sell them to. And I ended up being part of the effort to build the industry and sell the product. So I’ve been involved in intelligent transportation activities since my first summer working, which is over 20 years ago now. …

The car is a fundamental environment but there’s all these new things coming in and connecting with cars in various ways over time and there’s always new industries, and new concepts and new products and services and new opportunities. As a consultant, that’s where I live. It’s right in that new zone where people are trying to figure out how do you do this? What can we do? How do we make money?

Which is why, as you and I are having this conversation, the whole discussion around radio really resonates a lot, in particular because of the work that I did at Navteq on content. Maps are content. Radio is content. And really looking at, how do you take this content and get it in front of consumers and make money?

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