Sound-system suppliers and automakers are convinced that if you use a digital music format at home, you will want it in your car. As is often the case in these high-tech times, the latest change is pushed by something that was essentially unknown a year or two ago: the ability of consumers to download compressed music files from the Web and create compact discs.
Audio-compression formats, as the name suggests, are software programs that squeeze up to 11 times more information on a compact disc than is otherwise possible. Thus, a normal-size compact disc could hold almost 70 hours of music. The most popular of such formats is MP3, used by the controversial Napster Internet service, which provided copyrighted works without paying for them. Consumers also can download legal, copyrighted MP3 files from the Web, or make copies of discs they own. They also can opt for a tiny, solid-state card such as Sony's Memory Stick and do away with CDs, except as recording sources.
Auto suppliers are hurrying to catch up with the new technology. Before year end, Visteon Automotive Systems will introduce a compact disc player for MP3-compressed files. Delphi Automotive Systems also is developing such a player. Both are creating memory card players that will fit in an instrument panel, and General Motors has allied with Sony to bring the Memory Stick into GM vehicles. It hopes to announce production plans late this year or early next year, says Karenann Terrell, director of e-vehicles for General Motors' e-GM business unit.
The market for this technology is not yet huge. But shipments of players for compressed-format discs are expected to grow to 4.8 million units, about 15 percent of the total in-car CD market worldwide, by 2006, according to a report by Strategy Analytics Ltd., Luton, United Kingdom. 'The first market of this type of stuff is really the U.S.,' says Ken Erickson, Delphi product line manager for audio systems. The United States has the highest concentration of Internet users who can download MP3 files.
Research shows that the market is broader than young computer users. 'The staff at the industry leaders, like mp3.com and e-music, report that one of their most downloaded genres is classical music,' which generally attracts older listeners, says Mark Horvath, Visteon multimedia brand manager.
Other compressed-music formats include ATRAC3, which is used by the Memory Stick. GM says this format not only provides superior audio, but it also only accepts legal material. GM's partner, Sony, is one of the world's largest providers of copyrighted music. The MP3 format will play on the Memory Stick, but the most important thing for GM is that it supports copyrighted format, Terrell said.
But it is not the only thing. The Memory Stick has been available in consumer electronics stores since the beginning of the year, and offers what Terrell describes as a superior compression format. GM acoustic engineers found that the sound on the Memory Stick is virtually identical to a digitally recorded disc, while MP3 has a reputation for losing high and low tones.
There have been reservations about the formats' sound quality. 'So many Web sites and newsgroups have sprung up comparing them that it's become a cottage industry, with a variety of these tuned ears trying to find who has the best,' says Visteon's Horvath. But consumers may decide the ability to have a portable collection of tens of thousands of songs outweighs some loss of sound quality.
Driver distraction is another issue. 'How does one find the particular track that one wants to listen to without having to spend a whole lot of time looking away from his driving?' asks Paul Hansen, publisher of 'The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics' in Rye, New Hampshire. He suggests a speech-recognition system. Initial products, however, will rely on a display in the instrument panel.
How much will these devices add to the price of a vehicle? Hansen estimates that consumers eventually will pay up to $100 to have a CD player that can also play back MP3 files. Terrell cautioned that considerable work remains to adapt home devices to automotive use: 'They have to go over bumpy roads and survive temperature changes that you don't see at home.'
Eventually, says Visteon's Horvath, motorists will store their music collections online and access them through wireless Internet transmission. And they will no doubt wonder how they managed with nothing better than MP3 discs and memory cards.
You can e-mail free-lance writer Jeff Mortimer at [email protected]