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Alphabet vs. Radio: Traffic Info Smackdown

by Roger Lanctot | 8月 08, 2016

Alphabet is showing signs of taking over just about every infotainment function in cars except one:  traffic information.

When Alphabet, aka Google, arrived on the automotive scene the company and its minions quickly grasped that there was going to be a big opportunity for search, voice, navigation, maps, traffic and contextual marketing and advertising messages.  It was also clear that there would be a growing need for more and more software and applications - providing tasty tidbits for Android and its growing developer community.

In spite of the many challenges for a dominant player in the mobile market to shift its content, services and applications to the cost, power and processing constrained automotive environment, Google dove straight in.  Within a very short time Google, now known as Alphabet, took charge of in-vehicle search, despite the persistence of CloudMade, Bing (now out of the automotive market) and deCarta (now owned by Uber).

The next step was to provide for the integration of Android-based smartphones for which Alphabet created the Open Android Alliance and launched the Android Auto platform which brought Google Voice, navigation, content and the GoogleNow contextual messaging platform into the dashboards of most of the leading car makers.

In the process, Alphabet, like Apple, began taking charge of in-vehicle integration efforts by introducing a certification program for the deployment of Alphabet services, content and applications.  Suddenly car makers discovered that they had handed the car keys to a search company.

Alphabet (and Apple) have now taken over certification of automotive center stacks to ensure that content is rendered with the proper colors, frame rates, resolution and fonts, among other things.  This is a bit of a shocking turn of events, but it all comes back to search.

Auto makers seeking to bring search to the driving public realized very early on that Google had the best search.  Other than Bing, no player of Google's size was either interested in or prepared to deliver an automotive grade search experience.

That search dominance cracked open the door for Android Auto and eventually native Android (Android N) in the center stack and possibly elsewhere in the dashboard.  But a survey conducted by Jacobs Media points up the lingering Achilles heel of Alphabet: traffic information.

Jacobs Media surveyed some 39,000 listeners to 245 radio stations in the U.S. and Canada in Jan. and Feb. 2016.  According to a RadioWorld report, "most respondents were members of station databases, and some replies were gathered via station websites and/or social networking pages. All were collected online and weighed using metro population data.

"The Web survey doesn’t represent all radio listeners or even each station’s audience. Because it’s an opt-in, no margin of error is calculated. - See more at: http://www.radioworld.com/article/jacobs-scrutinizes-our-changing-media-lives/279206#sthash.trzKPO0q.dpuf"

Key results of the survey are illustrated above the headline to this blog.  For radio listeners interested in traffic information, radio remains the dominant and preferred source.  The survey does illustrate, however, the rising influence of Google Maps and Waze as resources for traffic info.  (The survey does not distinguish between in-vehicle and non-vehicle use - hence, television is yet another strong source of traffic information.)

Second only to search, traffic information is a must-have for the driving public.  Strategy Analytics surveys universally show traffic as the single most desired and most frequently used application.  It is interesting to note the emergence in the Jacobs Media survey of Waze as a competing source for traffic information.

In the U.S., Waze is to traffic as Pandora is to streaming music.  Waze, owned by Alphabet, is an increasingly popular traffic and navigation application, but not yet as popular as radio for traffic information overall.

Just as respondents to the Jacobs Media survey who are interested in traffic data likely prefer a live radio voice reporting the real-time traffic situation, listeners to broadcast music express their strong preference for live DJs and the opportunity for new music discovery in a curated radio environment.

The Jacobs Media survey and a survey conducted by Edison Research working with NextRadio both show the importance of the curated broadcast experience.

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Pandora and Waze represent automated experiences trying to deliver contextual experiences to cars via connected smartphones.  It looks like a man over machine proposition as listeners continue to choose humans over algorithms.  In spite of the ongoing fragmentation of content consumption in the car, radio continues to dominate in frequency and amount of listening.

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The slow deterioration of that dominance is clear from Strategy Analytics' own survey research.  Alphabet may be gaining ground in embedding Android, integrating smartphones and propagating Google Search and Voice and Now, but traffic dominance remains elusive.

It was only five years ago that Google initially partnered with INRIX before parting company with the Seattle-based firm.  The attraction of INRIX was its predictive traffic model, something also available from HERE and TomTom and SiriusXM.  Google and Waze have a reputation for emphasizing real-time traffic information and alerts.

Alphabet's failure to take over in-vehicle navigation and its inability to establish predictive traffic credibility, has left the company on the outside looking in.  This weakness will only become more pronounced as digital radio in the form of DTS's HD Radio sees wider distribution along with a shift from RDS-TMC traffic information to T-PEG - offering several times the volume of information delivery free over the airwaves.

Alphabet is also facing the amazing competitive proposition of radio becoming a searchable medium thanks to NextRadio technology and the wider availability of radio-enabled smartphones with digital reception.  But whether it is traffic or music, radio listeners continue to demonstrate their interest in and willingness to respond to and reward radio stations with live talent curating a local broadcast experience.  It's mankind vs. algorithms and the talent is winning, for now.

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