Beyond your iPod shuffle, or Sirius Satellite radio – and far beyond the AM/FM dial – car audio systems now offer impressive integration with streaming Internet music services that let users change stations, skip tracks, and manipulate playlists seamlessly through a vehicle's radio controls.
Pandora, last.fm, and Slacker Personal Radio are three such services and the choices are growing. Car companies and radio system suppliers are ready for this new technology and are already designing audio systems and new applications (or "apps") making more and more stations available to listeners who aren't sitting at a computer.
The current generation of smartphones are making this technological leap possible. Front and center is Apple's iPhone, which, with its numerous apps, allows owners to access the net on the fly through a 3G wireless data connection. Blackberry also has phones that use a 3G wireless data connection, as do phones using Google's Android software. While playing internet audio on these phones – and, thus, in your vehicle – isn't exactly new, the safety issue of looking at these phones to change stations or skip songs is just a dangerous a distraction as text messaging.
One unit produced by Pioneer, called the AVIC X920BT, is perhaps the slickest aftermarket solution. Not only does it feature a Pandora option built in (the unit will interact with a Pandora app, soon to be released, tailored specifically to the receiver), it's also got a touch screen, step-by-step navigation and voice control. The latter feature eliminates the need to divert eyes from road; if that Britney Spears track is getting on your nerves, press the "voice" button on the side of the receiver and speak into the air: "play Burt Bacharach."
If you'd prefer not to install an aftermarket stereo in your ride, look to Ford, one of the first auto manufacturers to integrate smartphones with its Sync factory audio system. The automaker's 2011 Focus integrates built-in voice recognition and steering wheel control functions with certain Android and Blackberry apps, including the Pandora app. Those who've tried Ford's system with a Motorola Droid phone were able to change Pandora stations with simple voice commands as well as skip tracks using a forward button on the steering wheel. Ford plans to incorporate an increasing number of apps with their system for even more flexibility going forward.
These advancements beg the question: are we witnessing the gradual death of traditional broadcast radio? Far from being shackled to, say, Clear Channel's corporate playlist or a DJ's whims, Internet radio stations put users in the driver's seat and allow them to create unique channels based on criteria such as artist, genre, or song. Yet, a savvy, $4.99 app from Livio Radio, which turns the iPhone into a digital receiver capable of receiving over 42,000 AM/FM and Internet stations, will give users access to more broadcast radio stations than ever before, right down to tiny local stations clear across the country. So while the death of the old AM/FM dial might deal a blow to large corporate broadcasters, it could well prove a boon to small and independent stations nationwide. Stay, uh, tuned.