Generation Why: The CD Player Is Dead, Long Live Smartphones

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

Are in-car CD players the mark of a vehicle aimed at geezers? According to an Automotive News report, the CD may be going the way of the cassette or 8-track player in certain cars – namely those aimed at younger, “Gen Y” buyers, who use smart phones as music devices.

An Automotive News article on the topic seems to suggest that “Sonic and Spark customers” [read: the coveted “Gen Y” types that Chevy is desperately hoping to attract] apparently don’t have much love for physical media any more.

“We asked potential Sonic and Spark customers what they were looking for in infotainment,” said Sara LeBlanc, MyLink’s global infotainment program manager. “They were very worried about cost. They said to us: ‘Get rid of the CD player. We don’t use it.'”

It’s true that Gen Y is concerned about vehicle costs, and that smart phones and MP3 players are the dominant forms of music players, but I don’t think anyone, regardless of age, has ever thought about how much the cost of a CD player has added to the price of the car. True, I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD, but unlike in-car iPod systems, CDs tend to work every single time, unless the disc is heavily damaged.

These days, the number one question I get about a press car is usually “how do I plug in my iPod.” Horsepower, airbag count, sticker price, where it’s made, those are all secondary considerations for passengers. Anyone who has driven a new car in the past 18 months knows that these systems are imperfect at best.The Ford SYNC system is at the top of my shit list for failing to work as advertised in nearly every single press car. Just as consumers expect total reliability from their cars mechanical components, they expect the same from things like infotainment systems – a flaky iPod interface is a surefire way to piss off your customers, have them raise hell on social media platforms and lose spots in the all-important J.D. Power Initial Quality studies.

GM’s elimination of the CD player may have more to do with getting rid of “…optical drives — that is, CD or DVD players — because they are expensive and appeal mainly to older motorists.” Sales of CD-free infotainment units are expected to jump 36-fold over the next 6 years, but CD players will also likely stick around for a while due to Boomers and “older” generations favoring them. GM can also eliminate having to offer pricey options such as navigation systems, by shifting that responsibility to the user’s smartphone.

Chevrolet seems to have found a novel feature to keep costs down, by having the phone do most of the heavy lifting. But what if you’re among the 47 percent of Americans aged 18-24 without a smartphone? Are you completely shit out of luck for any hope of having a sound system, navigation or other similar features?

The increased proliferation of these sorts of systems also raises big questions about the robustness of the current crop of cars. Will the infotainment systems still be supported by the various suppliers and vendors, or will they essentially “brick” the cars, or crippled a large part of their functionality? Not that the OEMs should care; after all, the warranty period will be up, and all that matters is getting buyers into cars right now and keeping them coming back when it’s time for another new car every few years. Given that the automakers business model is based on selling new vehicles, it’s not really a concern of theirs whether or not the system craps out and renders the car useless. Just buy a new Spark for $0 down, $199 a month for 60 months! The prospect of a whole field of useless cars, sitting dormant amid a tight supply of decent used cars seems like a far fetched prospect until you think about all the obsolete electronics cluttering the various nooks in your house. Tossing a Minidisc player in the trash is no big deal; an automobile isn’t quite the same thing.

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

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  • Glwillia Glwillia on Jan 18, 2012

    It's actually easier to solve the older your car is. My '94 Mercedes E420 still has the factory Becker tape deck, so I just use a cassette adapter and plug that into my iPod's headphone jack. Problem solved, with a total outlay of just a few dollars.

  • Marko Marko on Jan 18, 2012

    My father's 2008 Acura TL has an interesting variety of audio interfaces: CD (and MP3 CD support, I believe) Audio DVD XM Satellite Radio Bluetooth AUX input ...and a cassette deck! (Probably one of the last cars with one.)

    • ...m... ...m... on Jan 21, 2012

      ...i believe the last major manufacturer to ship a stock cassette deck was the 2010 lexus SC 430...

  • MaintenanceCosts If you trust that Tesla vehicles are capable of "Full Self-Driving," then maybe you should also trust that this is surface contamination and that the underlying metal is unaffected.(Although it's also worth mentioning that surface contamination comes off traditionally painted cars with a sponge and a little soap.)
  • Ajla They are expecting flat sales?!
  • Honda1 Losing 45k per vehicle! This company won't be around to release the R2. Put a fork in it!
  • Zipper69 Alternatively, get cousin Goober in the back seat going "VROOM, VROOM"
  • John The answer is to wipe it off? I don't recall ever having to "wife off rust" in any car I've ever owned. Well... once a year claybar for rail dust maybe.
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