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Ellis Pushes Digital Dashboard Development

“It’s not good” for radio if Apple and Google take over the car experience

The future of terrestrial radio in the digital dashboard is hardly clear to John Ellis. The founder and managing director of Ellis & Associates is a technologist and software developer who has spent most of his life not far from the intersection of data and autos, with the digital dashboard of particular interest.

John Ellis. “Trust me,” he says. “Apple and Google don’t care about an established industry like radio and making sure it fits into their platform.”

Ellis, who spoke at the fall Radio Show this month, is the former global technologist for Ford’s connected car business as well as an executive with Motorola. His job has been to develop and market mobile software and services.

Now, he consults to OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers and investment advisory firms about automotive, software, consumer and mobility issues. The National Association of Broadcasters also is among his clients.

The good news for broadcasters, Ellis says, is that carmakers still believe terrestrial radio belongs in the automobile. The bad news is that many new vehicles now have center stack dashboards equipped with Google and Apple infotainment management systems, whose designers don’t much care how hard it is to find radio features in the dash. And the eventuality of self-driving cars moves the whole in-car entertainment conversation to a new level, he says.

Ellis — whose team at Ford delivered Sync Gen 3, Ford’s latest-generation connected car solution — is based outside of Chicago. He discussed with Radio World the impact that Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto operating systems will have on terrestrial radio stations, the carmakers’ point of view about dashboard trends and his perspective on HD Radio.

RW: What is your guess of where AM/FM radio fits in the digital dash of the future in connected cars?
Ellis: When you look at driving today, people are spending an hour to an hour and a half a day in their car. About 85 to 90 percent of that is singleton time, where there is a lone occupant.

My point is there is a period of time dedicated to consuming media in a car. That really hasn’t changed much. Media consumption is obviously a huge component of the car of today. That will likely continue to be true of the car of tomorrow.

That consumption has always traditionally been AM/FM radio. Then the car industry added in 8-track tape, then cassette tape and then CD players. Today carmakers are bowing to consumer demand by increasing the mechanisms of media available in the car. You have DVD, Sirius XM and all sorts of SD cards, MP3 players, RCA jack plug inputs, and of course the ability to use a smartphone to stream whatever you want. It gets even more interesting when you consider the future car could eventually be autonomous. That is where the really interesting conversation begins.

RW: What do carmakers think of terrestrial radio right now?
Ellis: I don’t know if I can broadly answer the question. Though I can give some anecdotal evidence of where radio fits.

Carmakers don’t sell directly to their customers. Car dealers sell cars. Therefore, the OEMs struggle to know who buys their cars. Moreover, they struggle to understand why people buy their cars and what buyers like about them. Was it because the car has eight coffee cup holders or was it because it had a radio? So that means OEMs don’t understand the clarity of the purchase.

That mechanism reinforces the thought that if a car sells and it had a radio in it, the car must have radio in it to sell again. I tell radio broadcasters not to mistake the OEMs’ position. The OEM may or may not feel radio is important; but as long as the current system is in place and it gets reinforced that radio is a component of the sale of a car, then radio will remain in the car. Carmakers are loath to remove anything from the car.

So it isn’t that the OEMs aren’t willing to explore options, they just don’t have the luxury in the way the car sales system works today. For the foreseeable future radio will remain in the car because radio has been part of the successful sales process of the past and carmakers haven’t learned anything different.

John Ellis, right, makes a point about the connected car listener experience with, from left, Joe D’Angelo of Xperi, Scott Deaver of Avis Budget Group and Sam Matheny of NAB.

RW: What did you tell radio broadcasters at the recent Radio Show and do you think they liked what they heard?
Ellis: My part of the conversation was to talk about the future and what the OEMs are allowing to happen in the car. Specifically the agreements they have entered into with Apple and Google.

Carmakers have really ceded control of the in-dash experience in cars in certain scenarios to Apple and Google. My message to radio broadcasters is it’s not good for them when Apple and Google take over the experience. Apple and Google’s platforms are pervasive. Gone is the ability of hitting an AM/FM button. The escape mechanism to find terrestrial radio is hard to access.

Both Apple and Google have structured deals with the OEMs so that when you plug in that iPhone or Android device, the last media consumption experience you had on the device is what will start playing in the car. So, if you were listening to Pandora outside the car, once you get in the car and plug in the cable, Pandora will resume.

I’m not telling broadcasters that they have an inside-the-car problem, so much as they have an out-of-the-car problem. Broadcasters have to fully understand outside the car to fully comprehend what is happening in the car now.

With each successive release of new equipment, Apple and Google are making it easier so that an outside device can seamlessly transition into the car. It’s become just as easy to plug in a cable as it is to find a radio station. The radio industry needs to start a conversation and get behind the idea of developing an alternative way for digital dash technology to work. It’s an uphill battle.

Trust me, Apple and Google don’t care about an established industry like radio and making sure it fits into their platform.

RW: Do we know what percentage of new cars sold come with Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto operating systems?
Ellis: Yes we do. If we look at model year 2017 vehicles, I think GM is 100 percent. They ship with both Apple and Google. At Ford, model year 2017, all are Sync Gen 3 models are Apple- and Google-enabled. In fact of the top 10 carmakers, only one has a definitive statement that it is anti-Apple and Google, and that is Toyota.

Toyota has doubled down on a technology they call Smart Device Link. They cite concerns over security and privacy as reasons why they haven’t partnered with Apple and Google. All the other OEMs are moving as quickly as they can to incorporate Apple and Google.

RW: What types of projects do you help your clients with?
Ellis: We are a boutique management consulting firm. We do strategic consulting where we talk about the intersection of technology with respect to different businesses. A number of our clients are associations who represent industry players. For instance, we do a lot of work with the collision repair industry and what is going to happen as the car becomes more autonomous. We do strategic work related to how new auto technology will relate to specific industries.

RW: What are some of the limiting factors when it comes to what can be integrated into infotainment systems in new vehicles?
Ellis: Up until recently, the limiting factor were the OEMs themselves and their concerns over distracted driving. The Automotive Safety Office had a big say. What kind of font, color and contrast.

But with Apple and Google, the carmakers really have little control over the infotainment package. Once those platforms are launched, it’s their environment. For the first time ever, the OEMs are not in control. Apple and Google have both made statements what direction they are going in.

RW: Is voice control of devices the next big push for the digital dash?
Ellis: Yes, in fact we recently did a landscape report for a client that showed I believe for 2017 models all the OEMs had some form of voice control for “hands on the wheel and eyes on the road” interaction. Interacting with the system and interacting with the device.


John Ellis is a software developer and business development veteran with more than 25 years of experience. He is author of “The Zero Dollar Car: How the Revolution in Big Data will Change Your Life,” in which he theorizes that the push for data and technology inside today’s auto is so strong that companies like Apple and Google might someday be willing to help underwrite the cost of a vehicle in order to collect consumer data to sell to product vendors. He says some technology companies already have such deals in place with the OEMs.

RW: So Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto operating systems all use some form of voice control?
Ellis: Yes, absolutely. For example, if you look at the 2017 Hyundai Sonota, there is a hard button on the wheel for voice control. If you plug in your Android phone and you hit that button, you launch the Google voice assistant and you then interact with Google Voice. So you are talking through the microphone in the car, but the actual processing of the interaction is done by the Android phone and the cloud. In fact both Siri from Apple and OK Google interact with the voice control hardware from the OEM.

RW: What’s the next big thing in the digital dash?
Ellis: If we look at the concept cars from 2017 CES, there were a lot of heads-up displays. The concept of the in-vehicle experience is clearly being reimagined as we move closer to autonomy. If you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road or hand on the wheel, what might a person want to do? These concept cars exhibited some very rich features of media consumption. Not necessarily radio, but terrestrial TV and video.

OEMs are now looking at removing some very standard features of a vehicle, things like the steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. They certainly will reexamine the dashboard; and so the idea of what the entertainment system is in the future of the autonomous car is really up for grabs.

That was my message to broadcasters at the Radio Show. They have to understand that tomorrow’s dashboard will not look like it does today. They have to take a role in educating and raising awareness and determining what it will look like and what will be included.

RW: Any provoking thoughts to leave the radio industry with?
Ellis: You know, radio has been the same for over 100 years now. Radio hasn’t changed much. It’s really a one-way broadcast mechanism. There has been some progress with HD Radio. The question that I have started to ask radio broadcasters is, “What have you done to respond to the competitive threats? What is Radio 2.0? How would it work and how would you redesign radio to be more competitive? Do you have a plan for the connected services that buyers want?” I think radio underestimates the competitive threat of what they are going up against now.

RW: What do you think of HD Radio to this point?
Ellis: I’m not sure about it. As part of another landscape report we did, the penetration of HD Radio is nowhere near what you would expect after being around so many years. Does it have a future? I don’t know for sure.

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