I was driving the Golf R the other day and discovered to my chagrin that the high-powered car, with an audio system that had more than its fair share of aural fidelity was just not iPod friendly. Yes, it did have a 3.5mm auxiliary jack, but frankly with the plethora of handy media and video players around, who uses the little jack any more? I had carried along my iPod to test the system – instead having to make do with the rather mediocre range of English FM stations we have in Muscat. Apparently you can slot in an SD card instead. How many of you carry your music around on SD cards?
I would love to think that this is a unique case of a car’s features in mismatch to its audience – but it isn’t. Right from the beginning of the MP3 age – which in turn spawned the age of digital music, car makers have been playing a rather laggardly catch-up with lifestyles. At the beginning I presumed the reason had to do with being unwilling to pay Fraunhofer Institute the necessary licence fees for using the MP3 format. It was only after keeping tabs over the years that you really get a sense that design and engineering teams are often so blinded by their own brilliance that they don’t factor in the essential, things which even a layman could clarify, if asked.
The concept of personal music is well and truly entrenched. We download and port our music choices to personal devices, largely powered by the ease of use and affordability of the iPod and similar devices. If we cant afford that, most of us write the stuff on USB flash drives. The share of public who carry there music on MP3 CDs is still significant but shrinking. And the audio cassette tape is going the way of the dinosaurs. I would expect that in only a couple of years home music systems will move to a solid state or hard disk drive format, accepting inputs from the web, USB flash drives and over wireless. So why are car audio systems still fixated on MP3 CDs and aux ports?
It is in this area that manufacturers like Hyundai and Kia and some of the Chinese brands are taking customer attention. It looks like they know what the customer wants and are giving it to him. Good interiors, high quality audio, easy portability and interfaces. So you carry your mobile phone, media player or even a thumb drive and take your music along. It isn’t as if you are going to buy these advantages at the cost of the car itself. If the choice is between two cars that match on the basic ownership parameters, then this sort of connect with lifestyles will make the difference. Otherwise image the issue with spending a few thousand Rials on the car of your choice and then having to adapt your lifestyle habits to match with the car.
Many manufacturers are making the leap ahead in technology – like having streaming bluetooth audio on their systems, USB ports and even hard disks. But the issue that they all face is that with the rampant growth of technology their job gets that much tougher. When you buy a car the chances are that you will own it for between four to six years and if you have taken care of it then the next owner will take it through a decade. And a decade is now like forever in terms of the appropriate feature set. Of course you can always get an after market system that is better suited for the times – or like so many of us do now – buy a small FM transmitter.
The importance of keeping on top of technology, if not ahead of it is crucial. Even a company with the venerated credentials of Kodak has filed for bankruptcy because it didn’t read the progress of digital photography correctly, even though it pioneered it. Car makers aren’t going to go out of business by misreading personal entertainment dimensions but they definitely need to keep in tune with all aspects of fashion, lifestyle and technology to avoid losing marketshare.