Car industry: “gaps in digital coverage are a major deterrent to [the] introduction of digital radios”

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders [SMMT], representing 500+ companies in the UK car industry, has submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee inquiry into digital radio switchover. Its members have itemised a number of concerns about the practicalities of the government proposal that all new cars be offered for sale with DAB radios by 2013:

• “the apparent perception that the markets for in-vehicle radios and domestic radios are similar, if not identical, and that any assumptions about the speed of take up can be applied to both markets
• the timeline for adapting the existing vehicle parc [cars already on the road]
• the continued availability of traffic information after 2015 to those driving vehicles which are not digitally-enabled
• the extent of radio transmitter coverage
• the need for broadcasters to promote the advantages of digital radio to consumers to create demand
• safety and security issues arising from the use of digital convertors
• the need for pan-European approaches to the introduction of digital radios in vehicles.”

The key issue raised by SMMT concerning the necessary robustness of DAB in-car reception across the whole of the UK would require a massive investment from the radio industry to rectify:

“SMMT members are clear that the gaps in digital coverage are a major deterrent to their introduction of digital radios as standard equipment. As outlined [below], any vehicle manufacturer bears the reputational risk if a radio in one of its products appears not to work properly. Drivers have become accustomed to the gradual deterioration in FM reception which occurs throughout parts of the UK and recognise this is not the fault of their radios. At the present stage of digital roll-out, shortcomings tend to be blamed on the vehicle manufacturer.

SMMT members therefore welcome the statements in the [Digital Britain] report that:
• one of the criteria for deciding the date of the Digital Radio Upgrade will be whether national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage and that local DAB radio reaches 90% of the population and all major roads
• the BBC should begin an aggressive roll-out of the national multiplex to ensure that its national digital radio services achieve coverage equivalent to FM by 2014.

However, there is also a need for a plan to enable reception on those stretches of road, primarily tunnels and long underpasses, where reception goes ‘dead’ for a short period. At present, for instance, FM coverage in the Dartford Tunnel is addressed by special measures. In shorter tunnels, the FM signal tends to deteriorate but not disappear, whereas the digital signal disappears entirely.

SMMT noted that:

“There appears to be an assumption that the market for in-vehicle radios and that for domestic radios have similar, if not identical, features. In fact, they differ in five main ways:
• in the automotive market, the vehicle itself, not the radio, is the reason for the purchase
• vehicles are required to undergo an approval process which is far lengthier than any applying to consumer goods
• the sizes of the two markets and their dynamics are vastly different, where customers purchase new radios more frequently than they do vehicles
• if a radio in a vehicle fails, or even only appears not to work properly, blame is attached to the vehicle manufacturer, whereas the reputational risk if a domestic radio fails is borne by the radio manufacturer
• in automotive applications, the radio is not static. It moves between transmitters and, therefore, complete and national coverage of the digital radio network will be required.”

SMMT’s concern for new cars is that:

“meeting a deadline of 2013 will be a challenge for vehicle manufacturers who began product development in 2009, but we expect it to be achievable. A bigger challenge is represented by those models already on the market or most of their way through the development cycle, where the manufacturers will have to decide whether to divert engineering resources to the task of digitally-enabling them or provide new vehicles with digital convertors.”

SMMT’s concerns for the cars already on UK roads are:

• “The [Digital Britain] report suggests that the majority of the vehicle parc should be converted to digital by 2015, with low-cost convertors for the remainder.
• Vehicle manufacturers are certain that retrofitting of digital radios on a large scale is impractical. Vehicles’ electronic systems have become increasingly integrated; often, the radio is part of this integration and cannot easily or economically be replaced. A radio has to operate in the vicinity of sensitive electronic components, and poor integration has a detrimental effect on other systems.
• Retrofit also affects the perceived quality of the vehicle:
          *  antennae have to be chosen very carefully – reception from an internal antenna may be poor if a vehicle is fitted with infra-red reflection glass, or if a magnetic antenna base is fitted to an aluminium body
          *  poor refitting of trim items removed to permit a retrofit will cause rattles.
• Drivers will, therefore, be reliant on the use of digital convertors to enable continued use of their analogue radios after 2015. As vehicles have very long lives, most of the vehicles first registered since 2006, if not earlier, will still be in use in 2015. It is likely that over 20 million vehicles will have to be so fitted, and very likely that most of the necessary sales will be made in the few months before the date for digital migration. The commitment for a cost:benefit study to be conducted before any digital migration date is announced is therefore welcomed by vehicle manufacturers because it should firmly identify the progress made towards digitally-enabling the car parc.”

The message from the car industry seems clear – why should they risk their reputations by installing DAB radios that will suffer poor reception due to lack of a robust DAB radio transmission system in the UK?

The bigger question is – why would consumers pay extra for a DAB car radio that offers increasingly little additional mainstream content over a standard FM radio?

One thought on “Car industry: “gaps in digital coverage are a major deterrent to [the] introduction of digital radios””

  1. I think you are doing excellent work here and hope people are listening to what you are pointing out about this entire DAB mess.

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