Auto show season is in full bloom and journalists everywhere are writing feverishly about self-driving cars and other super-advanced automotive technologies that are just around the corner. Now let’s all take a deep breath and remember the last car with a cassette tape player rolled off the line less than four years ago and 83.4% of ’14 model U.S. light vehicles are equipped with compact disc players.
Many industry experts, pundits and journalists predicted car CD players would be extinct by 2015, but unless a giant asteroid hits the earth between now and December 31, that’s not going to happen. Instead, after more than 20 years of dominating vehicle center stacks, CD players look only mildly endangered.
That’s because being on the bleeding edge of infotainment gadgetry is not a top priority for most drivers. And, to their credit, CD players have evolved from the big, ungainly beasts they once were.
They now are almost invisible slits in center consoles, buried deep in the option list of the latest ’15 models, living an almost unseen and zombie-like existence until they are called upon to do the forgotten task of using a laser to read ancient scripts burned into primitive polycarbonate discs.
According to WardsAuto installation-rate data, CD players started replacing audio cassette tape players in the mid-1990s. Almost 10% of U.S. light vehicles were equipped with them in 1995. Their popularity peaked 10 years later, enjoying a 93.7% installation rate in ’05 cars and trucks.
But since then, their demise is occurring at a positively glacial pace considering the rapid advance of superior MP3 and digital-streaming technology.
Installation rates dipped to 90.9% for the ’10 model year, then 86.6% for ’12 models. And they slid from 86.3% in ’13 models to 83.4% for the just-ended ’14 model year. The ability of the CD player and the cassette player before it to live long past their expected departure date should be a lesson to all technology forecasters. They are pretty good at predicting when new technologies will be available for early adopters, but not so good at determining when mainstream buyers will let go of old technology they still like.
CD players are a perfect example of how unpredictable technological evolution can be. They embody all the attributes designers and engineers desperately want to eliminate. They are heavy, expensive and eat up precious real estate in the middle of a vehicle’s center console. Meanwhile, superior technologies exist that make them obsolete. And yet, automakers still can’t seem to get rid of them.
In 2007, Frank Homann, vice president-Cockpit Modules at Siemens VDO, a company which since has become part of German auto supplier giant Continental, saw the future of infotainment with incredible clarity. He predicted widespread adoption of Wi-Fi and audio and video streaming, and he envisaged the transformative power of the then brand-new iPhone. He even predicted people would use special iPhone holders in their cars so they could use it as an entertainment and navigation device.
The only thing he got wrong was the zombie-like durability of the CD player.
“We’re developing systems right now for 2012 and (CD players are) still in,” he told attendees at an SAE conference in 2007. “I believe that probably by 2015 you won’t see them. If a company takes a very drastic approach, they could actually take (them) out sooner.”
CD players clearly are being phased out, but at the current rate, we may see aging baby boomers still being able to check the option box for a CD player on their autonomous cars, because they want to listen to their Rick James CDs on the way to yoga class.