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Fred Jacobs and Roger Lanctot illuminate the mysteries of Net-connected cars at The Radio Show

It is an oft-repeated platitude that AM/FM will never be outcast from digitally empowered cars of the future. That might be true, given broadcast’s stalwart advantages of locality, simplicity, and ubiquity. Even accepting that premise, though, doesn’t address questions of form. What will AM/FM look like on the dashboard of a 2020 model-year car? How will it be operated?

Fred Jacobs (Jacobs Media) and Roger Lanctot (Strategy Analytics) took a swing at imagining the future by documenting digitally advanced versions of the present in their joint presentation, “Radio and the Connected Car,” at The Radio Show in Orlando. A highlight of the 45-minute multimedia session was a segment of consumer-testing videos staged in cars with digital dashboards. (That is to say, dashboards with infotainment display screens controlled by touch or voice.) In each of the four clips, a subject was given one task while sitting in the driver’s seat: “Find your local radio station.”

The setup foretold some amusement, and indeed, the audience tittered as test subjects helplessly swiped, scrolled, and called out commands in their attempts to simply turn on the radio. The tests did not represent actual new-car ownership, which in 2013 is supported by dashboard training at the dealership, but the point was less about the intrinsic value of sophisticated dashboard control than about the likely disappearance of push-button radio … and with it, the simplicity and naturalness which encourage broadcast listening.

One couldn’t help noticing, in the close-up views of four distinct dashboard systems, how divergent were the OEM approaches. One featured voice-based command-and-response, and another spotlighted Tesla’s vertically oriented 17-inch touch screen.

The operating systems powering these control platforms (and struggling to turn on the radio) differed from each other far more than Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile platforms do. Even throwing Windows 8 into the comparison, the car companies seem to be widening the chasm that separates drivers from a standard set of infotainment control features. If a unifying standard would coalesce this still-nascent product field, reduce development cost in the industry, and help consumers (of both new cars and rentals) get a grip on, well, turning on the radio — that outlook seems like a receding vision.

Whether OEMs take many paths forward or few, Jacobs and Lanctot believe that the future will arrive in four to seven years. Their specific predictions? 140-million connected cars in 2017. (This means some kind of link to the internet and IP-delivered audio.) Universal plug-and-play in cars by 2020 — in other words, Bluetooth or USB connections. (Their prognosis for the aux-in plug is grim: it’s on the way out.) And finally, in 2017, Jacobs and Lanctot claim that all cars will be knob-free. Or knob-deprived, depending on how facile you are with voice commands and 17-inch screens.

[On a side note, congratulations to Fred and Paul Jacobs and all our friends and colleagues at Jacobs Media, which this week marked 30 years in the business. With the Classic Rock format, audience research like its annual TechSurvey, and the birth of its jacAPPS mobile apps division, Jacobs Media has left its mark, and continues to do so, on our industry. Bravo!]

Brad Hill

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