Automakers are finally adding real "dash" to the dashboard.
From apps that discover the nearest coffee shop and then guide you there, to streaming music favorites via Pandora or iHeart Radio, it's a brave new world in "infotainment."
"The vehicle is the original 'mobile' device,' " said Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer at General Motors.
As smartphones get smarter and use of desktops morph to tablets, consumers grow increasingly reliant on having a computer at their fingertips. Having Bluetooth connectivity in your car, thus allowing the driver to play a favorite tune or audiobook, is becoming a standard feature in the U.S. car market. Same with hands-free cell phone operation.
From Mazda to Mercedes Benz, the 2013 model year offers a wide array of in-dash apps. Catchy names such as Entune (Toyota), SYNC AppLink (Ford), StarLink (Subaru), HondaLink (Honda) and OnStar (General Motors) are among the enticing bundles of connectivity.
"The key to understanding the customer is how they live their lives, understanding technology trends and how new experiences can be delivered through the new technology," Mr. Abram added.
At the same time, safety is a major concern. Just because consumers want the interactive experience they've come to expect from an iPad doesn't mean it's right for the car.
"The feedback we get from our customers is 'I want to do more, I want to do more,' " said Dave Sullivan, who heads up the electronics brand for Subaru in the U.S. "But generally, things that require you to take your eyes off the road for a significant period of time are not what we'll allow you to do."
Our cars practically are our second homes, so it's no surprise when they evolve to reflect the current tastes of consumers.
The first in-car radios appeared in the U.S. around 1930. FM joined AM on the dial about 20 years later. The 8-track player was an option in 1965, followed by the audiocassette player in the early 1970s. By 1985, the CD player was added and became a staple.
Of course, some features just couldn't get past the (proverbial and literal) bumps in the road. In 1955, a press release touted Chrysler offering drivers an unusual choice called "Highway Hi-Fi." They could listen to fare including the complete Broadway score of "The Pajama Game," as well as "Romantic Moods," by Percy Faith and his orchestra, or "dramatic readings from Bernard Shaw's 'Don Juan in Hell,' " not on their radios, but on an actual turntable.
Realizing the dangers of trying to flip records while driving, turntable manufacturer Columbia Records created special 162/3 rpm vinyl that played for up to one hour on a side. A few years later, RCA gave the turntable idea a spin, but this, too, was a bust.
Today, a dizzying array of choices are fighting for space on the dashboard, including Sirius/XM satellite subscription radio, and HD radio, which is free. Same for Bluetooth, which allows drivers to talk on cell phones or play music through their car speakers wirelessly.
A 2012 AT&T survey indicated roughly 20 million new cars sold between 2015-18 will have wireless connectivity.
Each January, the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas rolls out the Next Big Thing. Automakers arrive with plug-in concept cars that practically drive themselves, but they also have an eye on the everyday.
Subaru, for example, has unveiled its partnership with Aha, an infotainment platform that aggregates content from the Web, including music, audiobooks and podcasts. Users have the Aha app on their smartphones and create presets that sync to the car dashboard screen.
It will also employ "text-to-speech recognition," enabling, for example your Twitter feed to be read aloud to the driver.
Aha will debut on the 2014 Forester model. Aha also has partnerships with Honda and Acura.
Another interesting partnership is with the Amazon Cloud Player, which syncs with various Ford models. Drivers can access music playlists and other cloud-based offerings using voice recognition or steering-wheel controls.
While services such as Amazon Cloud Player or Aha stream content for free, keep in mind that they still draw from your phone's paid data subscription. And down the road, as with any platform, there might additional, in-app charges.
In-dash excitement also means in-dash distraction. A year ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued its first federally proposed guidelines to manufacturers. It specifically addressed "communications, entertainment, information gathering and navigation devices or functions that are not required to safely operate the vehicle."
Keeping the driver's eyes on the road and at least one hand on the wheel are the biggest goals. That's one of the reasons why most in-dash systems are not touch-screen functional when the car is in "drive."
At the same time, automakers are encouraged to link their systems to steering-wheel controls that can be more safely accessed than messing with a smartphone. Voice activation also plays a big role.
"We will not let you type in a destination while you are driving, and I understand that that frustrates some customers ... but most of the competitive makes out there [don't allow this] while you're flying 70 mph down the freeway," said Mr. Sullivan of Subaru.
In Pennsylvania, it is illegal for drivers to text message. One year after the law was enacted, the Pittsburgh metro area had 196 citations issued, second-highest behind Philadelphia. The region's AAA, which did a poll on the subject of driving/texting, revealed that 43 percent of the respondents quoted driver distraction as their biggest fear on the road. Next biggest fear was drunken drivers, at 23 percent.
It's tough to imagine cars without traditional radios, but there are those who believe AM/FM will at some point be left at the roadside. A recent NPD Group market analysis of 7,600 consumer surveys indicates terrestrial radio still dominates with listeners ages 36 and older on all devices (41 percent share).
But among the younger demo (13-35 years), AM/FM had a 24 percent share, only slightly better than Internet radio.
Mr. Sullivan said it's difficult to gauge the longevity of traditional radio. To those who predict it will be gone from the dashboard in 10 or 15 years he said, "[that's] a long time in the automotive industry. If you'd asked me 10 years ago would you be listening to music through your cell phone, I would have looked at you funny."
"While we are excited about the possibilities of Internet radio services like Pandora or iHeart Radio, as well as other emerging audio-based services, we understand that AM/FM radio is still an important source of news and entertainment in the car," said GM's Mr. Abram, adding that the automaker has no plans to phase out traditional radio anytime soon.
But for those who can't wait for the REALLY Next Big Thing, and have the finances, take a trip up West Liberty Avenue to Pittsburgh Bentley.
Promotional materials for the 2014 Flying Spur describe the 8-inch, high-resolution touch screen dashboard interface (priced at $7,300). The system will stream music as well as play CDs, DVDs, use SD cards and employ Bluetooth.
Even better, the Bentley Connectivity Unit (BCU) "allows portable devices, laptops and tablet computers to connect to the Internet through the car's own Wi-Fi hotpot with an active SIM and includes 64 GB of internal storage capacity."
Backseat passengers can control either of the two independent 10-inch LCD screens to access this wide range of multimedia. As for driver distraction, no worry -- the average owner of the $207,000 Bentley Flying Spur is probably not driving.
As for the rest of us, for now, we're just happy to have Pandora.
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.