Being from Detroit, I'm fond of saying that cars are in my DNA. Over the years, Jacobs Media has championed broadcast radio doing a better job of connecting with the auto companies. Our three DASH Conferences helped pave the way for the NAB to proactively pursue stronger relationships and more dialogue with car manufacturers – also known as the OEMs.
And why not? For nearly a century, all the automakers (OK, Tesla is the outlier) have graciously included radio hardware in their dashboards. For no fee. And broadcast companies have expertly monetized radio listening while people drive, making cars the #1 listening location. Talk about a scalable business – for radio, the car has been the ultimate pathway to reaching consumers of all ages as they work, play, and spend money.
But as our visits to CES and our DASH endeavors have revealed, changing dashboard technology poses a threat to radio's pole position in cars. The radio industry co-existed just fine with the in-dash cassette and CD players, but the “digital dashboards” of recent years open the door to every conceivable entertainment and information option, including video screens. The more choices drivers and passengers have in cars, the greater the challenge for radio broadcasters.
The in-car connectivity revolution started with the ability to pair a smartphone to the car. This basic feature is now standard equipment in virtually every vehicle that rolls off the assembly line. Android and iPhones are the “gateway drug” to digital content, whether it's podcasts, streaming audio, talking books, or the phone itself – all media sources that erode radio listening in the car.
And it appears we're entering another period where there's a palpable buzz around cars due in no small part to two megatrends that promise to existentially change this storied industry:
Autonomous and electrification
We've been tracking both of these developments via our CES tours and work with futurists like Shawn DuBravac. Each of these technologies is moving closer to becoming a bona fide part of the driving (or self-driving) experience. And there's a unique mashup where both of these automotive innovations will be present in the same vehicles. The aforementioned Tesla has led this charge, combining electric technology with its Autopilot feature – both of which amaze and delight its growing legions of satisfied owners.
Of the two, autonomous has hits more speed bumps. It's a more complicated technology. As engineers explain, cars that drive themselves are safer than you or I behind the wheel in 99% of situations. It's that 1% – the unforeseen anomalies – that pose the greatest challenge to autonomous becoming mainstream.
But it will happen.
Earlier this week, author and futurist Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay for Facebook's new newsletter platform, Bulletin (more on that in another post).
“Have we misunderstood the future of the automobile” details a ride that Gladwell took with his podcast producer, Jacob Smith. The vehicle was a Chrysler Pacifica hybrid equipped with Google's Waymo technology.
Gladwell's story about autonomous cars is subtitled “It's not what you think. It's much better,” and that tells you a lot about how he views a future where we're schlepped around by driverless vehicles.
He describes an almost Zen-like experience being in the backseat of a car with no one in the driver's seat, observing this technological wonder safely and methodically making its way through Phoenix traffic.
In his unique way, Gladwell describes an autonomous future that sounds downright fun, To test the technology, he moves to pedestrian status, intentionally trying to be hit by the autonomous car – which turns out to be saner and more sensible than most of us:
Season six of Revisionist History. Reporting: underway. pic.twitter.com/TGDqas8yNX
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) February 26, 2021
And my favorite paragraph from Gladwell's story analyzes Google's Waymo technology – compared to say human drivers – like us:
“Waymo doesn’t have emotions. Waymo doesn’t text. Waymo doesn’t eat a burger and drive with his knees. Waymo doesn’t get angry if you behave like an idiot. Waymo doesn’t give you the finger and accelerate sharply. Waymo doesn’t do road rage. Waymo wants to live and let live. Waymo is your grandmother, only with lightning reflexes and perfect vision to 300 yards. In a world of Waymos, cars aren’t the madmen anymore. But if cars aren’t the madmen, guess who gets to be crazy? The answer is obvious, my friends. We do.”
And then there's electrification.
This is a technology that's not just ready for prime time. It's been here, done that, and getting better with each passing year. Pew tells us more than 230,000 electric cars were sold in the U.S. last year. That's down from 2019, but COVID was the culprit. As you have no doubt seen while watching commercial television, the EV onslaught is in full swing.
Perhaps the biggest mover this side of Musk is Ford. Their iconic F150 truck line is the best selling vehicle in the world. And now, it ‘s transforming to the electric platform. The debut :90 spot for this vehicle is more exciting than Metallica coming to play your town this summer.
But before we head down to a nearby dealership, let's pump the brakes a bit and slow down. While these automotive advancements may be around the corner, it may be some time before they're sitting in your driveway. That's because new car acquisition may be slower than most people think.
If you're like a lot of people, these dual automotive technologies aren't about to change your life anytime soon. In fact, the odds are you're driving an older car that's running well. And that brings us to the conversation about car dashboards and how they're equipped. Because for radio broadcasters, that's a linchpin issue. Simply put, cars that are a decade old – or older – are rather light on those much-advertised, slick infotainment features.
That news became clear to me when I read a story in Car and Driver that the average car on American roads is now more than 12 years-old – an all-time high. COVID gets some of the credit, but auto longevity has been on the rise as vehicles have become better built, more reliable, and safer.
Of course, another factor is economic. According to the research study's author, IHS Markit, may be the reality that the average price of a new vehicle is nearly $38,000 – an increase of more than 3% from the year before.
Then there's the reality all these older vehicles may last even longer. Thanks to the pandemic, fewer miles were driven in 2020. And as work from home continues for millions of Americans, traffic on our roads is still much lighter than it used to be. That means less wear and tear on all those used cars.
And that also means fewer touchscreen dashboards.
Fewer SiriusXM free trial plans.
Fewer vehicles with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
In short, more vehicles where the best option is good old AM/FM radio – the easiest, simplest, one-button solution for entertainment and information when we're on four wheels.
Inevitably, those old Saturns, Subarus, and Silverados will break down, forcing their frugal owners to purchase a new or newer vehicle – a moment when many will discover new options in the dashboard. It's a window that exists now, but it won't be open for too long.
Radio broadcasters would be wise to make the best use of this time. That means assessing their content and services, and how they match up with the myriad platforms, channels, and choices available in every new vehicle manufactured, whether it's entry level or the hottest new Tesla or Mercedes-Benz.
The clock is ticking as technology impacts the cars we buy and begins to warp how we drive (or don't drive). For radio, a focus on brand building and audience engagement in local markets will be time well spent.
This is not the time to slow down.
Thanks to Lori Lewis for the heads-up.