By STEPHEN WILLIAMS for The New York Times
Published: February 4, 2011
According to experts who monitor the automotive market, the last new car to be factory-equipped with a cassette deck in the dashboard was a 2010 Lexus.
While it is possible that a little-known exception lurks deep within some automaker’s order forms, a survey of major automakers and a search of new-car shopping Web sites indicates that the tape deck is as passé as tailfins on a Caddy.
In most respects, that’s not a bad thing.
Although the technologies behind the compact tape cassette, which was invented by Philips, improved through the years — longer play times, better tape quality, Dolby noise reduction — magnetic tapes were subject to wear. They stretched, wound themselves around the innards of the drive mechanism and melted their cases in hot weather.
Still, for more than two decades the cassette ruled the road. It offered less distortion and higher fidelity than its predecessor, the wobbly eight-track tape, a positively primitive format.
But the cassette’s epitaph was being written with the arrival of the compact disc. The CD, not subject to wear because it was read by a laser beam and had no physical contact with the player, delivered even less distortion, even higher fidelity — and remains the ubiquitous audio source in new cars.
Audio seers say that the CD, too, will eventually fade away. Technology marches on, and automakers are wary of becoming stragglers in that parade.
For now, a variety of high-quality tape decks remain available for self-installation. And should you one day make the leap to a modern digital music player, the files could be accessed through the cassette slot using an adapter readily found in electronics stores.
The cassette tape was warmly received in the 1970s, and it co-existed for decades with CD hardware. In the 21st century millions of drivers are still attached to their tape libraries — the homemade party mix tapes as well as store-bought titles — that provided durable, portable alternatives to vinyl records and eight-tracks, neither of which were practical to record at home.
That nostalgic affection for tape holds no sway with automakers, though. For the 2011 model year, no manufacturer selling cars in the United States offers a tape player either as standard equipment or as an option on a new vehicle. The most recent choice for a factory cassette deck was the 2010 Lexus SC 430.
“Lexus was the last holdout,” said Phil Magney, vice president for automotive research for the IHS iSuppli Corporation, a firm that does technology industry analysis. “We actually stopped tracking cassette players in cars some time ago. Now the question the automakers are asking is, how long has the CD got to go?”
The answer may lie in the progressive ascendancy of the digital music device, especially those using the MP3 and similar file formats, as the preferred source of music in cars. TheiPod and its ilk are easing the journey along the path to the increasingly popular concept of file storage known as the cloud — that place in the Internet ether from which music is streamed, generally through a Web-connected mobile device that communicates with the car by a wireless Bluetooth connection.
“We went from radio to tape to optical and then to flash memory or a hard disc drive, and now we’re moving away from memory and to storage of our tunes in the cloud,” said Mike Kahn, director for mobile electronics of Sony Electronics.
It’s nothing radically new: Ford’s Sync infotainment system, developed with Microsoft, employs a similar technology, and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, a host of carmakers, including General Motors, Mini and Toyota, showed off similar streaming options.
Among the choices offered by Sync is Pandora Internet radio, a cloud-based service that lets users customize music programming to their preferences. In many of these systems, the Bluetooth pathway streams content from a smartphone. An app specific to the particular source is downloaded to the smartphone, enabling it to communicate with the in-car system.
The director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association, Steve Koenig, expects carmakers to continue to support CDs while at the same time marketing USB connectivity for portable players and in-dash slots to accommodate flash memory cards that hold tunes. Eventually, he expects, automakers will shift to Internet radio services.
Even satellite radio’s time has passed, he said. “It was a savior to the aftermarket, but in terms of subscription-based models like that, the sun is setting.”
Complicating the choice for drivers and automakers is the multitude of choices. “Right now,” Mr. Koenig said, “we typically have copies of our songs on a CD, on our computer, on our iPods. We may have downloads on our phone.”
He added: “It’s a lot of duplication, and all of that content will eventually exist in the cloud. We’ll pull it down on demand. We’ll pay a subscription fee, or, more likely, the service will be advertiser supported.”
The bottom line to Mr. Koenig’s vision is that carmakers will be able to reduce drastically the costly electronics and hardware that reside in the dashboard. In this future, he said, the vehicle becomes just another connection node on a network.
“We spend an average of 55 minutes a day commuting in the car,” said Mr. Kahn of Sony. “The car’s cockpit is like a studio on wheels, better than the best headphones. And after all, there’s nothing more American for Americans than great songs and the open road.”