One of the innovation milestones of the computer age, and one of the most potent symbols of Generation X--the compact disc--is on the way out of cars.
In what's likely to be the first stage of a drawn-out phase-out, Ford will stop selling CD changers for its vehicles at the end of the 2011 model year, and it's suggesting the single-slot CD player will follow. It's a sign of rapid changes in the in-car entertainment world, changes that are particularly swift at Ford, which is jumping on the connected bandwagon with vehicles like the 2011 Lincoln MKX.
As the whole music industry shifts from "hard" digital delivery to "soft" delivery through networks like iTunes and Pandora and less legitimate outlets, automakers are faced with a choice--to adapt audio systems and to put portable players foremost in their product plans, or to deal with the legacy formats like CDs in other ways to hang on to more Luddite users.
In many ways, it's shaping up exactly as did the end of the car cassette player, which Ford dropped from most cars by 2005. A group of potential buyers don't want to abandon significant, expensive music libraries. On the other hand, playlists are the new mix tapes, and the world has clearly moved on from CDs, as it did with tape and vinyl.
There's incentive to move away from CDs quickly. As with cassettes, eliminating CD players from the standard-equipment list will save money and build complexity for automakers. But even more importantly, the move will free up space on the middle of the dash-- "Manhattan real estate," according to Ford's director of electronics engineering, Jim Buczkowski--in favor of more expressive styling and for other features, like larger LCD screens.
2011 Lincoln MKX
Truly open format?
As it moves toward voice controls and app-driven user features, Ford's become a big consumer of LCD screens. It's also replacing many audio controls with its voice-activated SYNC system, which connects a user's audio player via USB cables or through Bluetooth. The USB port is less expensive than a single-format media player; it's more reliable in operation; and it consumes far less dash space.
With SYNC, with larger touchscreens and other touch-sensitive, slimly-stacked touch controls like those in the 2011 Lincoln MKX, Ford has cut down on the dreaded sea of lookalike buttons that can daunt new users and are more difficult to operate while driving. At the same time, it's opened up the vehicle's audio portfolio to thousands of devices it doesn't have to cover under warranty, or explain how to use, in an owner's manual.
Removing the CD player from the equation and moving to a smaller "media hub" also gives Ford far more flexibility in dealing with future technology, says Buczkowski. The 2011 MKX's media hub houses two USB ports and a set of RCA jacks. (Ford may be the first automaker to put two USB ports in the same car.) The same space could be adapted to hold a bank of USB ports, for charging and importing data from different sources simultaneously--everything from a mobile WiFi hotspot dongle to a USB drive with an owner's manual.
"Think of the kinds of things you can plug into USB," Buczkowski says.
It's another step toward an Apple-like streamlining of the center stack, and Ford's banking on voice controls for the next stage of in-car infotainment. With the latest version of SYNC, it's much easier to navigate deep into the car's functionality. Drivers can "play Bruce Springsteen Nebraska" as quickly as they can utter it--making old-fashioned pieces but easy-to-use pieces like a CD player seem even more obsolete.
While the death throes of the compact disc have begun, even Ford still sees the need to offer CD players. Some demographics--a polite way of saying "old folks"--still want them, Buczkowski says, and Ford's plans could include offering CD players as accessories through dealers. That presents issues of its own: like the first aftermarket CD players, factory-accessory CD players will have to find a place elsewhere in the cabin to live. That means they'll be more vulnerable to hacks like vertical mounts (which allows dirt, crumbs and even pennies slide in) and to more vibration, more skipping, more of the kinds of issues buyers normally raise in quality surveys.
Some automakers are likely to hang on to CD players quite a bit longer out of organizational inertia, but the future of in-car music seems clear. With the advent of portable players with huge storage capacity, the in-car CD player's days are numbered.