WorldDAB's Harrison (center) promised a set of guidelines for in-car DAB units (Photo: WorldDAB)

MUNICH -- Broadcasters expect radio to be part of cars' infotainment packages, even as the array of available in-car services expands and internet streaming extends into the car.

At the annual WorldDAB Automotive Event, which took place here June 21, broadcasters and equipment providers cited continued growth for digital radio in the car. And though market penetration varies sharply from country to country, most expected digital radio to play a much  bigger role in coming years.

WorldDAB, a global industry association promoting DAB digital radio, said sales of cars equipped with DAB radios soared almost 40 pc in 2017 to 4.6 million units across key markets in Europe and Australia.

"Radio remains relevant in the digital age," said Ford Ennals, CEO of Digital Radio UK. "The most popular place to listen to radio is while driving," he added. According to UK research, 90 pc of all drivers listen to radio in the car.

Sales of DAB equipped cars are propelled higher by expectations that more countries will soon follow Norway's lead and switch off official FM transmissions and move fully to digital radio.

Those expectations have boosted fitment rates for DAB in new cars in several markets. In Norway, 98 pc of all new cars now have DAB as standard, while the percentage is 87 pc in the UK and 66 pc in Switzerland, where an FM switch-off is planned for the first part of the next decade.

Universal requirement

Speakers at the conference stressed that digital radio should be an integral part of every car's infotainment package because it offers better reception, more user-friendliness and improved sound quality.

To cater to different needs and provide the easiest access to radio transmissions,  broadcasters are embracing the concept of hybrid radio, which seamlessly brings together FM, DAB and internet reception.

"Our message to the automotive industry today is that all cars should have both FM and digital radio capabilities, delivering the best experience for drivers across the continent," said Patrick Hannon, president of WorldDAB.

The association recently conducted market research on car drivers' use of in-car digital radio in Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium. What it found was that digital radio is preferred over FM; drivers expect an easy user interface; and they want a simple A-to-Z alphabetical station list. Some of the terminology used was seen as difficult to understand.

The research provides a tool to let the automotive and broadcast industries jointly improve the DAB user experience, said Laurence Harrison, chairman of the WorldDAB User Experience Group. "The next step will be using this research to inform a set of guidelines," he said.

Digital radio executives said that, as more nations start switching off FM, it will be important to have all cars equipped with DAB receivers. "It should be standard and not an expensive extra," said Siegfried Schneider, director of the Media Authority of Bavaria. Added Michael Reichert, future radio development director at Bavaria's Bayerischer Rundfunk: "A car with only FM is not fit for the future."

German premium brands such as BMW have so far taken the opposite approach, providing DAB as an option that has to be paid for. "There needs to be a market pull," said Florian Franz, manager entertainment and antennas at the Munich based premium-car maker.

The conference devoted equal time to efforts to boost new-car DAB fitments and to strategies to convert existing cars. "There need to be many more aftermarket solutions, because there will be millions of cars that need to be converted once the switchover (from FM to DAB) happens," said WorldDAB's Harrison.

Data transmissions

One of the issues all aftermarket providers face, however, is the need to fit an additional antenna to the car. This can be costly and so far, no equipment provider is offering a simple, no-clutter antenna product that is easy to install. Equipment makers present in Munich said car owners willing to bring DAB into their cars want a professionally installed, cost-effective and easy solution.

Despite strong overall in-car DAB growth, some countries lag the upward trend. DAB adoption in Denmark is held back by a lack of interest in the general public. Hence, there are fewer cars equipped with DAB in the country than in many other parts of Europe.

"The attitude is: Why should I fix it if it ain't broke," said Tobias Enne, head of digital at Denmark's PrimeTime communications advisers. He added that an awareness campaign is underway to grow digital radio in the country.

There was also discussion in Munich about possibly using DAB broadcasts to send more data to the car. Ron Schiffelers, senior director program management at NXP Semiconductors, noted that tomorrow's cars will have to be fed huge amounts of data while on the road. "How do we get those data into the car?" he asked. And answering his own question, he suggested that DAB+ offers a very robust and cost-effective way to transmit data.

Martin Speitel, group manager infotainment at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, agreed."You can also use DAB as a simple data pipe into car radios," he said.

"Not a playlist"

Though many of the sessions at WorldDAB's automotive conference were technical in nature, some speakers stressed the unique role played by radio in people's daily infotainment habits.

"Radio is totally different," said Eugenio la Teana, head of R&D at Italy's RTL 102.5 Hit Radio. "It is live 24 hours a day; it is your best friend and often at night, people love to hear a voice. Radio is not a playlist."

-By Arjen Bongard