If you follow this website, you’ll know that I’ve written a lot about the connected car, especially about how traditional radio needs to get with the program. For an overview of the entire evolution of in-car entertainment, I hand you over to Ars Technica.
For decades, car infotainment meant just a radio. Then tape decks began appearing, eventually being joined by CD players. Now, Tape decks have disappeared as a factory option (the last car to come with a tape player was sold in 2010), and the CD is entering a slow but inexorable decline. They’re being replaced by smartphones and streaming media. Compared to even a few years ago, new cars are far more connected to the outside world. It’s a trend that’s only going to continue. The always-updating consumer electronics industry and the rapid rise of the smartphone have combined to condition consumers to an incredibly rapid pace of development. People expect new devices every couple of years that are faster and more powerful, and they’re bringing those expectations out of the Apple or Android or Microsoft store and into the car dealership. As we covered recently, this has created a new set of challenges and opportunities for the automakers. For a range of reasons, car companies simply have to work with product development cycles that are three to five times longer than the tech industry. This lag is most visible to end users in the context of infotainment systems, which have certainly come a long way from AM radios and road atlases.
In some regards, our cars and trucks are becoming smartphone peripherals. In the same way that parents decry their children (even their middle-aged adult children) using smartphones at the dinner table, many show no desire to give up the constant stream of social media or streamed content just because they’re driving. Of course, having one’s face buried in a phone is somewhat more dangerous when in control of thousands of pounds of vehicle. Car-appropriate interfaces are a big focus of the car industry these days.
Unlike when smartphones initially became an ever-present life force, these days car infotainment is not all about bringing your own device to the party. Mobile operating systems, persistent wireless connections, and screens large and small are increasingly being incorporated into new cars. As is common with emerging automotive technologies, this tends to begin with the luxury technobarges at the very top end of the new car market, but trickle-down is a real thing when it comes to vehicle specifications, thanks to the realities of purchasing.
Those privileged enough to have been in the market for such a car recently may have a good idea of the infotainment state of the art. Thanks to the great recession, however, for the rest of us—now keeping our old cars for ever longer—the brave new world awaits. What does that world entail? It might be a cliché that you can’t understand your present or your future without an understanding of your past, but it’s a cliché I happen to like, and to that end, let’s take a quick look at the history of car infotainment before returning to the present day to see what the OEMs have up their sleeves.