Nearly a third of motorists in the U.S. want streaming media in their cars, according to the Gartner consultancy. And a Deloitte survey found that 72% of car buyers age 19-31 want smartphone app compatibility, and 59% said car connectivity is the most important aspect of a car's interior. So how is the auto industry responding to such demands?
Yesterday RAIN braved the crowds at the Chicago Auto Show to find out. After stopping back at least half a dozen auto-makers, we were struck by the variety of ways drivers can now listen to nearly any web radio service through their car speakers.
Indeed, though some manufacturers offer slick touchscreens that display album art and now playing info, these systems really only make it easier to do what most new models can already do through Bluetooth, USB or audio-jack connections. Most of the basic systems even allow control of web radio streams (using play, pause, and skip buttons on the steering wheel or dashboard).
GM's MyLink system (pictured left, playing Pandora) appeared to be one of the easiest systems to use. We tested the set-up in a 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco, which featured a touchscreen filled with iPad-like icons.
It offered options for Pandora and Stitcher, though it could stream any web radio or music content via Bluetooth or USB. MyLink supports Andriod and iPhone. Its available in the 2012 Verano, LaCrosse, Regal and Enclave -- according to the representative we spoke to, MyLink will be offered standard in most of those models by the end of the year. (Note: MyLink for Buick and GMC is confusingly dubbed IntelliLink).
Audi's in-car web set-up (pictured right, playing Pandora) was the most advanced and differed from others in not needing a smartphone for some web tasks. Instead, the car connects to the web itself using T-Mobile's network. Alas, the setup -- called Audi Connect -- doesn't include streaming web radio, which still requires a Bluetooth-connected iPhone or Android. However, you can connect to the Audi's in-car Wi-Fi and not drain your monthly data plan.
Audi offered another nice touch: even though there's no in-dash web radio "app," per se, the dashboard screen does offer now playing metadata from web radio services.
BMW's system wasn't on display, but reps said it supported Pandora and MOG (though only through iPhones). Again, their cars include Bluetooth and USB support for playing any web radio or audio content.
The same was true of Volvo and Infiniti, though neither had in-dash support for apps like other manufacturers.
The most confusing system by far was Ford's MyFord Touch, which offered a mind-boggling interface that was nearly impossible for us to use. Much better was Ford's "basic" Sync system (pictured below left, in the process of creating a new Pandora station), which relies on voice commands rather than a touch screen. Those commands can control Slacker, iHeartRadio, Pandora or Stitcher (through a connected smartphone). You can even thumbs-up songs on Pandora or start new stations using voice commands.
Toyota's EnTune system was strangely not available for a "test drive," even though it was prominently featured throughout their floorspace. EnTune supports iHeartRadio and Pandora (again, it requires a connected smartphone).
Both Toyota and Ford can stream any audio or web radio content via Bluetooth, USB or aux-in ports, which appeared to be available in most models.
In the end, it was clear that car manufacturers' "support" for certain apps like Pandora or iHeartRadio -- while most certainly helpful, both to drivers and the services -- isn't really necessary to listen to Internet radio while driving. All you need for that is a smartphone, web radio app and Bluetooh, a USB cord or an auxiliary audio cable.
Other observations from the Auto Show:
- In-car hard drives for music (and video!) were common. BMW, for example, offers a built-in 12GB hard drive in some models, while Audi offers two SD card slots in the dashboard. As one BMW rep told us, "Why worry about your iPod or iPhone when your car is basically an iPod?"
- Most models listed support for SiriusXM and even HD radio, but these felt almost expected, like having cup holders. Pandora and smartphone support appeared to be promoted more on banner and displays.
- That said, some car reps were on shaky ground when discussing Internet radio support (though, in all fairness, they were probably expecting more questions about transmissions than the capabilities of Bluetooth audio streaming).
- One Toyota rep told us he uses Bluetooth support in his own Toyota car to listen to YouTube music videos while driving. That stuck me as a fascinating insight into how consumers listen to music (as well as yet another reason to be cautious while driving).