I drive a lot of cars for CNET Car Tech,
a lot of cars with very nice sound systems. But none of them get it right. The auto industry's electronics sector is either oblivious or just won't acknowledge the way we live. We understand personal, portable, and programmable, and we've adapted to a life where portables do it all these days, from broadcast tuning to file playback to voice communications to Internet access to satellite radio. It doesn't scare us.
But it apparently scares auto electronics designers because they keep developing the car as its own media island, an annoying little empire that forces us to maintain multicitizenships across the media systems in our car, home, office, and on the go. That's crap.
As Driving It reader Jon Fuelleman put it, "[Carmakers] are trying to make the car itself too smart. It should be a hub, not the brains, for my electronic lifestyle. I tweak and adjust things as I grow, and I'm pretty sure BMW won't let me add upgrades to its software." Bingo.
So Alpine, Delphi, and Kenwood, start taking notes, because you're about to get a lesson on the future of in-car entertainment. Let's begin.
First off, forget the elaborate in-dash AM/FM/CD/XM/iPod receiver that is passé three months after purchase--that idea is dead. Instead, put everything in a portable device that lets me have one state of media and communications wherever I go.
The DIN slot in my dash should simply house a control amplifier with Bluetooth and a display--no tuner, no CD player, no satellite radio, no horsey iPod cable dangling from it. I envision this control amp automatically connecting to each device present in the car with an audio channel of appropriate fidelity and a control channel of appropriate logic. Also, the display of the control amp would automatically populate itself with a list of available sources in the car.
What would your dream car stereo consist of?
Say you want to listen to the iPod in your pocket. With this new in-car system, all you would have to do is simply press Play. Want the volume up or down? Adjust the levels on either the iPod or the control amp. Your Treo starts ringing? Press Answer, and the iPod is paused by the control amp and the Treo goes to hands-free mode. Done with the call? Press Hang Up, and the iPod restarts with a smooth fade-in. Elegant. Magical. Doable.
And just wait until the next generation of phones that actually embrace Wi-Fi instead of fighting it arrives. The control amp model would still hold, only now it would also handle the routing of display information from devices such as Treos to displays like those mounted in the back of headrests. Again, the model is the same: The car is an infrastructure for your portable to serve you intuitively.
Yes, I know a lot of companies would need to cooperate on a raft of new shared Bluetooth specs for all this to work, but those same engineers go to the bathroom without adult supervision, so surely they're grown-up enough to do this, too.
Another issue that may arise is charging these portables. As the sole source of audio, you'd end up with either a rigorous charging discipline (boring), omnipresent power adapters in the car (messy), or dead devices (intolerable). So to avoid any of these scenarios, I would mount inductive chargers, as developed by Splashpower, into surfaces around the car, such as the dash, in the rear seat console, and in things such as map pockets and binnacles.
Once the amp and portables in the car are all humming, sound would come from the new generation of flat speaker technology from NXT in the United Kingdom. An amazing technology, it lets existing vehicle parts pull double duty as speakers. The big molded dash-top of your car, for example, could finally do more than just absorb UV radiation and coffee spills; the entire thing would be a speaker system. The same goes from molded trim on the A, B, and C pillars. It's an incredibly elegant way to transmit sound and put speakers where they should be instead of where they fit.
Sure, this is all a radical departure from how in-car systems are structured today, but it just makes sense. And it has a big upside for consumer electronics makers who embrace it because the concept also works in the home and office. If you're in a position to get this done, do it. And maybe break me off a small piece of the first $1 billion you make from it.