Ever wonder what will happen to car audio when cars go autonomous?
Some industry experts say in-car entertainment will be relegated to wireless headphones and the radio as we know it will just be a generic transceiver linked to the cloud.
Others say a more traditional radio will remain in tomorrow’s cars, as will amplifiers and speakers.
Before we explain, it’s helpful to know when autonomous cars will hit the roads. True hands-off-the-wheel self-driving cars aren’t expected until around 2030, close to 15 years from now. The beginning of autonomous cars will take place, however, in the next few years. The first cars with autonomous capability may hit the road in 2019 and 2020, but people will still be required to keep their eyes on the road and a hand on the wheel.
But we may see convoys of autonomous trucks on highways in as little as 3 or 4 years, said Angelos Lakrintis of Strategy Analytics. And around the same time, we’ll see autonomous Uber-like vehicles in certain cities or parts of cities, says Re/Code.
The OEMs are already looking ahead so we asked Mazda what it thinks of the future of infotainment. Mazda Engineer for HMI & Entertainment Matt Valbuena (who was a Senior Product Planner at Pioneer for many years) believes future cars will include both an onboard radio system and a personalized system like headphones. “It’s similar to airline travel, which is basically an autonomous travel mode from the passenger’s point of view…” he said. People use their own devices or the headrest screens or they use the plane’s WiFi. “I see a lot of parallels,” he said. “I think automakers will take the same approach.”
Analyst Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics says people have been saying for years that you won’t need a radio, just a phone, but it hasn’t happened yet. “It’s the more things change, the more they stay the same… Some say there won’t be radio. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that’s the case…the radio was practically made for the car: local reception everywhere, free localized information and it’s contextualized, getting local new traffic, weather, all the stuff you need to know where you are.”
Valbuena said even with the “prevalence of Pandora, SiriusXM and Spotify, the number one listening source is still AM/FM radio….it’s familiar and you don’t have to launch an app. I see that continuing to exist into the future.”
Keith Lehmann, a Technology Analyst & Strategist (formerly Executive VP of Kenwood) believes entertainment will become personalized so wireless headphones will be a preferred audio delivery method. And our windshields will turn into either video screens or computer screens as needed.
Lehmann said, “It’s all going to rest in the cloud. You wouldn’t need to generate anything in the vehicle. Nothing like a CD or hard drive. You could just pull it all in.” He said autonomous cars will require an onboard 3D mapping system, creating maps of streets as they drive and so cars will have a constant connection to the cloud anyway.
In the nearer term, Valbuena said, “You are going to see a greater degree of built in features in the vehicle. USB ports are the new cup holders. In the 90s you had 4 cup holders in the car and now you’re seeing 4 USB ports. We’ll see them in the door panels and the front and back seat. Even though wireless charging is a cool feature, you can’t use it while you’re charging unless you are staring down at the screen siting on the console. “
You’ll see more multi-zone technology so kids in the back can have their own programming. And while radio isn’t going to be jettisoned, he said, “At the same time, I see the brought-in devices [phones and tablets] will have a broader role….There will still be speakers in the car and amplifiers and a microphone. There will probably still be a tuner, but that could evolve. And there will not just be terrestrial radio but web radio,” he said, explaining, that if you ask the system to play Led Zepplin, it may deliver it from an obscure stream in Russia.