Why the Biggest Thing At CES Is... the Car. And Check Out That Radio!

Last Updated Jan 6, 2011 1:41 PM EST

LAS VEGAS -- The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is about all things digital and all things mobile. This year, more than ever, that means cars.

The best apps enjoyed from an armchair -- including TV and web access -- have gone mobile with auto-based versions. And one of the new frontiers is high-end car audio -- not from a CD but from the radio.

EVs are digital products
As cars plug in and add ever-higher computing power, consumer electronics and automotive are coming closer together than ever. The plan by Best Buy to not only charge EVs in the parking lot but sell chargers (and maybe, down the road, actual cars) is part of the chain's conviction that EVs are just another digital consumer device that can be stocked alongside 3-D TVs and laptops.

There are cars everywhere at CES, from Aston-Martins to classic Camaros. The electric vehicle is being acknowledged at CES with a special Electric Vehicle TechZone from Audi, and EVs on display from Ford and General Motors.

The Consumer Electronics Association seems fascinated with the technology, and it released a poll entitled Electric Vehicles: The Future of Driving. Among its conclusions: The biggest question consumers have about EVs (asked by 50 percent) is how far it can be driven before needing to be recharged, followed by battery longevity (34 percent). Funny, that's a big question with consumer electronics, too. Interestingly enough, it also said that 51 percent of respondents go first to websites like this one for their information about EVs, so we'll try to keep the current events coming.

Some new apps
I gazed open-mouthed at a Mustang convertible with what looked to be a 32-inch TV monitor mounted on the back deck, but its minder wouldn't tell me what it was for until the press event.

I walked the floor as workmen maneuvered forklifts and bolted together exhibits. I saw interesting stalk-like devices that plug into cigarette lighters and deliver satellite radio (as well as iPod recharging). Audiovox offers a Car Link app that turns your cell phone into a remote that can start, unlock or find your car -- even release the trunk and open the sliding door on minivans. The same company also had a cute four-inch LCD backup monitor as part of a bolt-in rear-view mirror that slots into American cars.

One of the big sellers this year is likely to be aftermarket stereos that incorporate navigation and mimic the original equipment in new cars, but for half the price. Increasingly, these devices also incorporate features like satellite radio and a service I'm fascinated by, HD Radio. As consumers have many other options for listening to music and other programming in their cars, HD is a play by the broadcast media to retain the mobile audience.

HD's bid for radio relevancy
According to Stephen Baldacci, a spokesman for HD Radio owner Ibiquity Digital (owned by a consortium of big-league radio owners such as Clear Channel), some 2,000 AM and FM radio stations now broadcast HD radio signals, which are transmitted digitally on frequencies between regular broadcast radio. Baldacci claims these local broadcasts reach 95 percent of all radio listeners in the U.S., but the rate of new stations going HD has slowed, largely because of cost issues in a radio recession.

At the CES show, Ashraf El-Dinary, a vice president of commercial applications at Ibiquity, sat with me in a HD-equipped Volkswagen. He said it costs stations $60,000 to $200,000 to go HD, depending on whether they need a new transmitter and other enhancements. Ibiquity has sold three million HD radios so far, and 17 auto brands now offer HD, and 37 models include it as standard equipment. For VW, it's now standard when you get the Premium 8 audio package, previewed here:
HD Radio sounds really good. Ibiquity's claim is that FM sounds like CD, and AM like FM. On the VW, I listened to a country station playing Kenny Chesney and Joe Nichols, and the bass was really deep and the treble very crisp. Added features include a visual display of the artist playing with a photo, and tagging, which allows you to push a button and retain information on a song in an iPod playlist. Of course, you have to buy the songs for 99 cents each.

HD is a bit complicated for the novice. Tune into your standard station on an HD radio and you'll hear it with enhanced sound and graphics. But the same station may also have an HD2 or HD3 channel with unique programming. As El-Dinary demonstrated, a station playing the Jack format on their main channel might offer an HD2 with smooth jazz and an HD3 with talk. NPR's WAMU offers bluegrass on its HD2.

A further offering on some forms of HD Radio is news headlines and local traffic reports. They look good and are certainly useful, but may raise distraction issues.

"HD is always local, and it's always free," said Baldacci. That last point is important when you compare HD to satellite radio. Consumers who are getting tired of paying for their SiriusXM subscription might want to investigate what they can get over the air, free. There are reportedly 1,000 channels of unique HD2 and HD3 programming, though it's all local -- only available within the range of the broadcast signal.

Baldacci cited polling data that has consumers rating HD Radio as second only to Bluetooth in terms of technology they want in their cars. "There's quite a lot of momentum in the OEM space," he said.
As I said, cars and audio are merging as digital products, and your next automobile purchase may be at a big-box store, with HD Radio and a built-in web browser as part of the deal.

Related: Photo: Jim Motavalli