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A Steep Climb for Auto HD Radio?

As to whether auto dealers would look further into HD Radio, or what might cause them to do so, my impression is they will respond when customers demand information, not before.

When asked if he shouldn’t offer the Model T in various colors, Henry Ford supposedly said that his customers could order a Model T in any color they wanted as long as it was black.

Until around 1960, the same was true for car radios: Customers could order any kind they wanted, so long as it had a single speaker in the dash and tuned any AM station between 550 and 1600 kc (this being the abbreviation for kilocycles in use back then). Then on June 1, 1961, the FCC authorized FM stereo. Slowly, automobile manufacturers responded, first offering FM as an option, eventually as standard equipment.

In 1963, GM offered an AM/FM radio as standard equipment on the Corvette, but as late as 1965, FM was still an option on the Pontiac GTO, as the picture of my ’65 convertible will attest.

(click thumbnail)The author’s daughter Kayley tunes his Delco AM radio, circa 1965 — definitely not HD-R.Today, consumers have a dizzying selection of automobile audio accoutrements from which to choose: from plain vanilla AM/FM, all the way through satellite digital radios with a dozen speakers, powered subwoofers and iPod connectivity. But where does HD-Radio fit into all of this?

Are auto manufacturers “pushing” this technology to consumers? Are consumers “pulling” the technology from car dealers? Is reality somewhere in between? And what does all of this mean on the street?

Morning and afternoon drive remain critical ratings and revenue generators at most stations; so car listening is vital. Radio World sent me out to do a seat-of-the-pants survey to find out.

iPod, MP3 connectivity

I am a child of the ’60s (and thus desperately clinging to youth), so the first car into which I planned to lower the seat of my pants was the Corvette. But before jumping into my non-HD Radio-equipped 2005 minivan to head out to the closest Chevrolet dealer, I decided to do a little searching on the Internet.

A trip to the GM Web site turned out to be disappointing. I found an entire section of the GM Parts and Accessories page devoted to iPod and MP3 connectivity, but nothing on HD Radio. Specifically, the page advised me to “See the full range of GM vehicles with the fully integrated iPod PAL system, PMPC audio input jacks and exclusive Music Device Capability.” Uh, HD Radio, guys?

The Ford site did not yield better results; when I typed in the search words “HD Radio” on the accessories page, I received seven results, six of which referred to a special outside mirror option. Clearly, the number one and number two American car companies need some education about this technology.

And the Japanese?

At the Nissan site, I found a very nice sound system ($1,850 MSRP), but no HD Radio option. It did, however, require me to choose the luxury moon-roof option, in order to get the upgraded radio.

What the sound system has to do with the moon roof, I could not decipher, but nevertheless, there it is; to get the nice (and still not HD-equipped) radio, you also get a hole in the roof. My new Nissan Murano LE, should I choose to buy one, would have a great vertical view, if somewhat lacking in the audio department.

I was getting nowhere fast. Time to get in the car and head out to get the real scoop from the dealers.

Where HD-R Stands With AutomakersAccording to HD Radio business announcements, an HD Radio receiver is a factory-installed option on all new BMWs and Minis. HD Radio receivers are a dealer-installed option on all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models; and, in 2009, the technology will be factory-installed on those vehicles. Volvo has announced that HD Radio technology will be a factory-installed standard across its product line.

Toyota said after the NAB Show in April it will offer HD-R receivers as an option in the Scion soon.

Mercedes has said it will include HD-R in its vehicles.

Jaguar will offer the technology in its redesigned 2008 luxury XJ sedan. Hyundai will offer HD Radio receivers in its rear-wheel drive premium sports sedan, Genesis, introduced in 2008.

Ibiquity has said some “hundreds of thousands” of HD-R receivers have been sold as of 2007, the latest figures available, according to a spokeswoman. The company has not separated out how many of those sales originated from automakers or dealerships.

— Leslie Stimson’Vette demo

My trip to Elco Chevrolet in Manchester, Mo., just outside St. Louis, was a kick, since Mark Gerecke, the salesman who helped me, was, like all of us 50-to-60- somethings, a Corvette nut.

I introduced myself and Radio World, and asked if he could give me any info on, or an actual demo of, an HD Radio (preferably one mounted in the center console of the Z05 ’Vette) right there on the showroom floor.

He mused about the “HD” nomenclature for a minute, then asked me if I meant satellite radio.

No, HD Radio. Like regular AM and FM radio, but digital and with more signals.

Now, I could weave all kinds of fancy verbiage around his answer, but the short strokes were: “No.” As in “No, I can’t demo it,” and “No, we don’t sell it,” and “No, I don’t know when GM will make it available for sale.”

He did say I could get one from Best Buy; he also took my card and promised to call when he found out more from the corporate guys at GM. (He never got back to me.)

Not an auspicious start, but I remained undaunted, and climbed out of the Corvette and into the minivan for the trip down the road to the nearby Ford dealer, Bo Bueckman Ford.

There I ran into Larry the new car salesman; I do mean “ran into,” since he practically leaped out the front door to greet me, car sales being a bit anemic lately.

Again, he was a knowledgeable and likeable car guy, but one without any specific info on HD Radio. He did, at least, know what it was (not satellite; no subscription charges; extra channels) and knew where at Ford to call for more information.

He was kind enough to print out the official Ford position on HD Radio; I was amused to see that it was a reprint from Turns out HD Radio will be offered as an option on certain models in 2009, but exactly which models is uncertain at this time.

I took the printout, thanked Larry and, since I had passed on buying the Corvette, did a quick calculation to see if I had enough equity in my house to buy the 650HP Saleen Mustang. I definitely did not, so I saddled up in the van to find the next dealership.

At this point I had an inspiration. The Germans! These guys know audio (not to mention cars). Heck, they invented magnetic tape recording; and old Gottlieb Daimler was building cars before Henry Ford had left the farm. They will know all about HD Radio.

I found a 2008 Mercedes C350 on display, a great-looking car, with every imaginable option … except HD Radio. Nor was there anything about “coming soon” on their showroom brochures.

Back to the van and over to the Chrysler dealer. HD Radio? No. Honda? No. Toyota? No.

Cadillac; Volkswagen (another stab at the Germans); Lincoln? No, nein and no. (I spoke with sales reps at Volkswagen and Cadillac, and relied on a touch screen “Build Your Car” display and print material at Chrysler, Honda and Toyota.)

I hadn’t been to the Koreans (Hyundai), and we don’t buy cars from China (yet), but I was running out of dealerships.

Not yet at least

The unfortunate conclusion of this story is that, in my part of Missouri, HD Radio essentially is absent from new cars at this point.

Now, gas being pricier than bottled water these days, I didn’t drive all over St. Louis; but I touched on a dozen dealerships up and down “auto row” in suburban St. Louis County and inquired into numerous brands.

Given the lack of knowledge among salespeople about the product, it is also fair to say (and these salepeople acknowledged) that there is little, if any, customer demand here.

As to whether auto dealers would look further into HD Radio, or what might cause them to do so, my impression is they will respond when customers demand information, not before. I was clearly the first, or one of the first, to ask about the new radios during my visits and inquiries in May.

On the bright side, though, HD Radio is coming to a new Ford dealership near you, if not until calendar 2009.

I did find a smattering of knowledge about the technology on the Web and among people I met. But I also found confusion about the availability, the cost, the number of channels, the delivery mechanism, and most important, the consumer proposition of more free, over-the-air, local radio choices.

A semi-bright spot was Best Buy. There, I wandered back to the Car Audio department and met Scott, a nice young guy who knew more than anyone should know about subwoofers, equalizers and audio systems. He showed me several aftermarket radios that included HD-R receive capability.

He demoed two for me and they sounded terrific. He knew the difference between satellite (“You have to pay for a subscription”) and HD Radio (“It is part of your regular radio stations; it’s digital, you get more channels, and it sounds a little better”). He also editorialized that there was no way he would pay for satellite radio, since HD-R was just as good and was free.

Still, there was a cloud around this silver lining: “Of course, I just use my iPod when I’m in my car, so …”