DAB in cars: the straw that will break digital radio switchover’s back

Speaking today at the Intellect conference in London, broadcasting Minister Ed Vaizey tried to assure us that digital radio switchover was still “on course” to happen in the year twenty something or other:

“On cars, the move to include digital radio as standard in new vehicles has continued over the last year. Around 14% of new vehicles have DAB as standard, up from 4% a year ago.”

Within hours, this news was misinterpreted by one online news source as Vaizey having said:

Forty per cent of cars have DAB [Digital Audio Broadcasting] radios as standard now, up from just four per cent a year ago.”

From ‘14% of new cars’ to ‘40% of all cars’ in a stroke of a keyboard! No wonder the article went on to assert that “the key driver to the take-up of the [DAB] technology looks like it will come from the car industry as manufacturers start to fit digital radios as standard.”

How wrong can this statement be? Fewer than 1% of vehicles on the road currently have a DAB radio. That proportion is not going to increase quickly, even by 2013 or 2015, as the government wants it to. Rather than being “the key driver” for DAB radio take-up, cars will become THE major sticking point for digital radio switchover.

The UK car industry appears to be nearing the end of its tether over the confused information that has been fed to consumers in recent years about the so-called DAB ‘switchover’ and FM ‘switch-off’ date(s). This frustration boiled over at the last government Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 17 May 2011, when Bob Davis, who heads the Digital Radio Committee of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders [SMMT], stood up to offer what he referred to as a “naughty” comment:

“Jane [Humphreys, Department for Culture, Media & Sport] said earlier ‘around 2015’ for a digital radio switchover. The automotive industry has made it very, very clear, since the process began, that it needs certainty. We’ve got 2013 [as the date for a government decision on switchover] and we think we’re working towards a 2015 switchover date. With respect, Jane, I can already see tomorrow’s headlines that DCMS says ‘digital switchover delayed from 2015’ because you used the phrase ‘around 2015’. That implies a delay. It may be what potentially happens in the market – it may be 2016, it might be a bit later than that – but, for the moment, from an automotive industry perspective, every time there’s a suggestion that 2015 has stopped being the aspirational date – or might stop being an aspirational date – all that happens is [that] the automotive industry, or parts of it, is given another opportunity to say ‘it ain’t going to happen, forget all about it’ and we will end up with the bigger problem of converting vehicles already in the parc to digital, because people will just say ‘if DCMS can’t give us certainty’ – and I accept that, at the moment, you can’t – but if DCMS are saying ‘around 2015’ instead of ‘in 2015’, it reduces the opportunity for SMMT to keep telling its members there’s a deadline, and it’s ‘this’. So please could we have a little bit of caution, from an automotive industry perspective, in (particularly) government references to switchover dates.”

Jane Humphreys: “Thank you, Bob, though I think I’m right in saying that the Minister has never said ‘it will be in 2015’. He too has said that it will be in terms of … that is the target to which we are working, but what is the principal objective is that we have to meet the criteria that have been set out and we have a piece of legislation – unless I’m much mistaken – that says there will be a minimum of two years’ notice. So….”

John Mottram, DCMS: “That’s right. I’m aware of three Daily Mail articles that suggest it’s seven years, two years, five years’ delay depending upon the date, so I think in terms of coverage and it being delayed, I think that delay is already out there. But to Jane’s point, I think the Action Plan and Ed [Vaizey]’s words make it clear that it’s a consumer-led approach. The industry target date is 2015 – we’ve never shifted from that – but that decision is based on the criteria….”

At that point, the meeting was abruptly closed. What had been scheduled to be merely another ‘tick the government box’ faux consultation meeting had suddenly started to spin out of control. The natives had started to get restless. It was time to turn them out onto the street again.