Tony Churnside | Creative Technologist

Car Controlled Radios

Friday 15th March 2013

I recently bought a new radio and so much about it is lovely. It looks beautiful, and underneath the attractive retro exterior lies a capable computer with a wifi card and an FM and DAB radio. You can even download an app to use as a remote control.

New DAB Radio
Now because my lovely new radio can receive FM, DAB and Internet streams I can choose to listen to Radio 4 either on FM, DAB or via the Internet. And I hate it. Whenever I switch it on, once I’ve decided which station I want to listen to I have to decide which broadcasting technology I want to use. As a user experience this is ridiculous, I really don’t care if it’s FM, DAB or Internet. I just want a good quality signal that doesn’t break up or noticeably suffer from interference. All I want to do is choose a station or programme. Why can’t the radio work out the best way for it to be delivered? After all it is a capable computer.

iPhone app UI
This brings me to a discussion I had on twitter recently. There have been a number of articles about the auto industry removing FM/AM radios from cars. The first claims that AM/FM will not exist in cars in 5 years. The second contains the results of an online study which seems to ask you if you’d rather “automakers removed FM/AM radios from my next new car” or not. Unsurprisingly people don’t want something they use and like using “removed” from their new car.

Car Dashboard
This survey isn’t that useful because it implies the options are either an in car FM radio or your mobile phone and its data connection. In reality this is very unlikely – how would this benefit the auto industry? FM receivers are so cheap it’s unlikely to be about saving automakers money. It’s far more likely to be about them owning the in car experience. If automakers can be the entertainment gatekeeper it is highly valuable to them (in terms of licensing, advertising etc.) Removing a traditional FM radio from the car dashboard allows them to be the gatekeeper. I’m not saying this is a good thing for the consumer. But it’s a thing that I can see happening in the near future, and if the car manufacturers do it right they’ll abstract the distribution method from the user experience as much as they can. And if they make use of all the technology available to them (GPS, IP distribution perhaps in combination with FM/DAB) I can see innovations along the lines of Radio DNS, Absolute’s In-Stream, and mine and Ian Forrester’s Perceptive Media being applied in very interesting ways.