Driving us round bend

Amazon's cloud player puts a phone-like interface on your BMW's dashboard
Amazon's cloud player puts a phone-like interface on your BMW's dashboard
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IT’S ironic given that it’s a business built on speed, but the car industry is notoriously slow at adopting new technology. The rest of us have gone from Walkmans to iPods to smartphones in the time it has taken Skoda to fit a socket on the dashboard.

Radio is still at the heart of the entertainment system in most cars, and therein lies the problem. Europe can’t decide on a common digital transmission system to replace FM – which arguably doesn’t need replacing in the first place – with the result that development of new in-car sets has stalled. That in turn means you and I have had to get used to driving everywhere with a shelf load of CDs rattling around in our glove boxes.There are signs, though, that the auto industry is about to move with the times. Halfords announced last year that it would sell only digital radios in future (no sign of that having happened yet) and from Amazon comes news of partnerships with BMW and Ford to do away with radios entirely and put cloud-based players in premium models. A cloud player is one that stores your music on the internet instead of a CD, so you can access it on any of your devices, wherever you are. The industry sees it is the future of in-car entertainment – but even the briefest glance at the business model they’re using suggests there’s more in it for them than for you. Amazon and its rivals Apple, Google and Nokia, all of whom are fighting for control of the audio stalk next to your steering wheel, are less interested in selling physical music players than the music itself. Songs are no longer silver discs but individually-priced MP3 files which you buy and store on their servers instead of your PC or phone. Of course, you can also keep your music collection on your phone. This has the advantage of not needing internet access to play it, and the convenience of always being close to hand. You can connect it to your car’s speaker system using either the socket on your dashboard or a Bluetooth link to your regular car stereo. The drawback is that either method will discharge your battery. And fiddling with a phone screen isn’t conducive to safe driving.

Amazon’s cloud player, on the other hand, replicates your phone’s relevant functions on a big screen embedded in your dashboard and safely within your eyeline. Some day, all cars may work that way – but on current form, it’s about as far down the road as the one that runs on water.