Technology has its own form of survival of the fittest. Once-popular media formats are eventually pushed aside as the masses move on to the new, more convenient way to watch movies, listen to music or read books. DVDs are currently falling victim to this vicious cycle as on-demand streaming video has finally become widespread. CDs have been on a slow decline since the dawn of the iPod over a decade ago. (When's the last time you brought a disc into the car?) And now the auto industry has started to ditch the disc as well.
The car CD player death knell is nigh
Car technology moves at a much slower pace than consumer electronics. The cassette slot didn't disappear from the dash until 2010, when that year's Lexus SC 430 became the last car to offer a tape deck.
Now it's the disc's turn to fade away as drivers turn to music that's either stored on their smartphones or streamed to them.
"With the rising popularity of digital music and streaming services, some automakers made the decision to shift focus from the CD to connected services and smartphones," says Vadim Brenner, VP of product management at Gracenote, the predominant supplier of "metadata" such as the album, artist, song information and album art that's often seen on a car's infotainment display.
Automakers and consumers aren't abandoning the disc in droves just yet: Gracenote reports nearly 5.5 million CD "lookups" on its database every day, representing only an 18 percent decline since 2008. But all signs indicate that the death knell may be sounding for the car CD player. The main motivating factor is that fewer drivers are carrying clunky discs into their car: probably because they've stopped buying them in the first place.
Forecasts show that sales of CDs and DVDs topped out worldwide in 2011, says Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager of infotainment for IHS Global. He adds that in 2013, the overall CD "attach rate" (the number of vehicles that include a disc drive) dropped 75 percent. But beyond this shift in consumer taste, automakers also want to ditch car CD players to save weight and open up their interior design options.
Spark, Sonic and Soul models skip CDs
General Motors recently deserted the disc in its MyLink system in the Chevy Sonic and Spark. MyLink mostly relies on a connected smartphone to bring music and other content into the car.
"We decided to put one of our more advanced radios in our entry-level vehicles because we knew that the most connected customers are younger buyers—the ones who buy Sonics and Sparks," says Sara LeBlanc, GM's program manager for MyLink in the Spark and Sonic. She adds that customer research conducted by Chevy revealed that the target buyers for the cars listen to music on their phones. "So we took the disc drive out to give our customers more memory or a bigger screen because CD is not a feature they want," she says.
Another youth-targeted vehicle that's dumping the disc drive is the Kia Soul, which will shed the CD player starting with the 2014 model. "Because the Soul lends itself to a demographic of purely digital customers, it makes sense for it to mark the beginning of an evolution in which car CD players will eventually disappear from dashboards," says Henry Bzeih, Kia's chief technology strategist. "But this transition could take three to five years across the industry as a whole."
It's not just these lower-priced or small vehicles that are abandoning the CD. The 2013 Ram 1500, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2013 SRT Viper can now be ordered without a disc drive, Boyadjis says. He says that a local Ram dealer told him that among the trucks customers have ordered, only about 10 percent of buyers wanted a radio with CD player. "And only two or three buyers demanded to have a CD drive in the truck," Boyadjis says.
"Customer preferences are clearly trending in favor of content being brought into the vehicle on mobile devices rather than CDs," says James Robnett, director of UConnect strategy and product management for Chrysler. UConnect is Chrysler's vehicle-wide infotainment platform, encompassing the Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Viper brands. "And we anticipate growing demand for cloud-based content." That's why Chrysler is launching UConnect Access Via Mobile, a service that supports Internet radio streaming via a customer's smartphone.
Ford has been on the cutting edge of infotainment technology since the release of its Sync system in 2007. Yet the automaker isn't saying when (or if) the CD will disappear from its vehicles.
John Schneider, chief engineer of Ford Electronics and Electrical Systems Engineering, does think that the disc is in its twilight years, however.
"Like the cassette player before it, customer demand for integrated in-dash CD players has peaked and is on the decline, being replaced by more popular, portable and cost- and space-efficient technologies," he says. Portable digital media players connected to the car by Bluetooth or USB connectivity are the primary choice of today's customers, who use them to play music or other content that either lives on their devices or is delivered over the Internet, Schneider says.
Design and weight help kill the disc
Designing a new vehicle is a trade-off that involves making sure individual systems fit the car's budget, size and weight requirements. Adding one element often means taking away or compromising on another. And increasingly, designers and engineers are foregoing the disc drive so they can add other more desirable features.
"We budget a certain amount that we're going to pay our suppliers for a radio, and if we can delete the CD and improve one of the other features, that's a win-win situation," LeBlanc says. Since the car CD player wasn't a feature that Spark and Sonic customers necessarily wanted, that freed GM to work on making the cars' displays bigger and improving their resolution or processing speed.
The center location that an in-dash CD player occupies has "high real-estate value," says Ford's Schneider. And since it could be used for higher-priority features, disc drives have started to migrate to new locations in the car. The CD player in the 2013 Ford Escape, for example, sits at the very top of the dashboard "center stack," not in the middle of it. In Edmunds.com's long-term test 2013 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye, the CD player resides in the center console, so as not to hog space that's better used by the car's 8.4-inch touchscreen. In the Chevrolet Traverse, the CD slot is at the bottom of the center stack.
Another consideration in discarding the disc drive is its weight. Any savings there can help make a car more fuel efficient. Although the weight of a CD player may seem insignificant, automakers are looking to shed as many pounds as possible to increase miles per gallon.
At an Automotive Press Association presentation in Detroit last year, Michael Arbaugh, chief designer for Ford interiors, said that eliminating the CD player could shave almost 5 pounds from a car's overall weight.
"That was definitely on our minds," GM's LeBlanc said of the decision to leave the CD player out of the MyLink system. "We track mass savings, and that was especially important in the Spark and Sonic."
Discs slots will look odd in the dash
You don't have to throw out that sun visor CD holder just yet. The car CD player will stick around for a little longer.
"A significant percentage of customers around the globe still expect an integrated CD player to be offered for their vehicle," Schneider says. "Automakers will be challenged to continue to offer CD players, at least as optional content, through the remainder of this decade."
Boyadjis predicts that by 2019, 35 percent of vehicles worldwide will still have CD players. "At the end of the day, the hardest technology to remove from the vehicle is the well-established one," he says.
But even if disc drives don't completely disappear from the dash for a decade, they could soon make the cars that have them appear antiquated. That may be enough for more automakers to consider killing the car CD player.
"Now if you see a cassette deck in a car," LeBlanc says, "you think, 'How old is this thing?'"
Will the car radio go away, too?
Technologies like the eight-track and cassette player have come and gone in the car, and the CD player is soon to follow. And so far, AM and FM car radio have survived them all. But with Internet radio and streaming music services such as Pandora, iHeartRadio and Rhapsody coming to the car, traditional broadcasting is facing new forms of competition.
"Today it is much easier for any audio content from around the world to find its way into a vehicle as long as the car or its driver is connected," says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive electronics analyst at Gartner. "You no longer need expensive transmitters to get content into the driver's ears. All you need is space on a server and attractive content."
That doesn't mean that traditional AM/FM car radio will go away, Koslowski adds. "But it certainly will no longer be the only option for consumers."
Valerie Shuman, an auto industry consultant, illustrated the current state of radio during "The Digital Dash" panel at the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention by showing a picture of an elephant climbing into a Model T Ford. The point, she said, is that a ton of content is now coming into the car.
"In-vehicle infotainment systems have evolved from traditional radios into much more flexible platforms capable of supporting a host of media, content and apps," she told the audience. Business as usual for broadcasters "is probably not going to be the right answer."
"Every entertainment medium has had to adjust to stay relevant, or the world just moves on to the next thing," says GM spokesman Scott Fosgard. But he pointed out that there are services that Internet radio may not be able to replicate, such as local news, weather and live sports.
"I can't imagine listening to sports without AM/FM or SiriusXM," he says.
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