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Making Sense of the Auto Dashboard


It seems to me that radio is in a bit of paralysis by analysis when it comes to the “connected” auto dashboard.

As we get lost in the details of what change is coming and how fast, we’re not focused nearly enough on what to do about it, given that such a large proportion of radio listening emanates from that very dashboard. We’re stuck in the theater of the moment.

Consider the reality of the situation:

The complexity of the new dashboard is overwhelming many consumers. What was once simple and reliable has become far more powerful but also far more complicated. And that means even when consumers can figure out how stuff works – and very often they can’t – that stuff doesn’t work right.

Electronic systems posed the biggest issue for problematic brands. The Ford and Lincoln MyTouch system, a negative since its introduction in 2011, continued to plague these brands. Problems with new audio, navigation and communication systems led CR to drop the Honda Accord V-6 from its recommended list. (The Accord four-cylinder is still recommended). The new Cadillac CUE infotainment system also hurt its brand’s ratings (25th).

The automakers – fancying themselves “Steve Jobs with Wheels” – have managed to craft proprietary Rube Goldberg devices that challenge and confound the ability of consumers to do what they want most: To simply bring their mobile phone experience into the car – or to hear what they always listened to in the easiest, most familiar way possible.

It’s altogether too reminiscent of the days when everybody was making mp3 players – those days before Apple introduced the first really simple one and soon after built an end-to-end ecosystem to feed it just as simply.

Come on now, compare the user experience of starting up a new iPhone or Android device – gadgets that are infinitely more complicated than the auto dash – to the user experience of the “connected car.”

To be sure, the automakers are terrified at the prospect that Apple or Google could do for the dashboard what they so efficiently do for every other device they touch: Make it simple, powerful, effective, and common across all devices – in or out of the car.

The biggest challenge for radio in all this techno-evolution is that one of radio’s biggest advantages is being swept away – the familiarity and ease of use historically associated with radio listening – “I know what stations I like, I know how to use a radio, I know how to find what I want.” All that is evaporating into the ether.

And that’s a problem because a great deal of radio listening happens, whether we want to admit it or not, because it’s “there” – it’s convenient. It’s unavoidable. It’s the only (or the easiest, most familiar) entertainment game in town. Much of that listening does not happen because the station is “must hear” or because what’s on it is so terribly unique. That’s just the truth.

So wiping away the ease of use radio has always enjoyed and erecting numerous “speed bumps” to the experience will result in infinitely less usage.

It’s not just about radio competing with more audio options, it’s about radio competing with a poorly designed and overly complicated user experience. And too many radio stations are not made for that kind of competition.

So what brands will remain standing?

The ones that are “must-hear.” The ones that contain unique and compelling content. On all the platforms where consumers devote their attention.

It’s not about “live and local” since neither “live” nor “local” necessarily imply value. They simply imply “now” and “place.”

Time to wake up.

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