Car stereo bugs that drive me nuts

car radios

Car stereos have the best sound and features we have ever seen. Scant decades ago, cars came with single speaker AM radios; today, we can play music from phones, pods, satellites, and thumb drives, ignoring AM and FM entirely.

At the same time, we’ve lost a few things; many cars only use knobs for volume and changing stations, burying bass/treble, balance, and fade adjustments in touch-screens that you have to look at while you’re driving. Some stereos even get overwhelmed and stop responding to the controls entirely for a while. Others forget where they were and have to start over again every time.

Our user interface looks better than it used to, but does it work better? Here’s a typical 1974 standard radio…

1974 am radio

There are five pushbutton presets; if you’re an avid radio listener today, you may have a switch on the steering wheel to go from favorite to favorite, but you also might not have a way to change stations by feel. Can you quickly switch the bass or treble? Do you even, (gasp!) have pushbuttons for the volume control? Everyone had knobs in 1974! — at least, everyone with a radio, even the lowest of the aftermarket brands.

I won’t put my 1974 car’s sound quality alongside any modern car, but for easy usability while driving, it fired on all cylinders.

Back in the 1990s, I drove a car which remembered different equalizers for each band and could remember settings by station, too. That’s handy for dropping the bass way down and boosting the treble on talk radio, to make it easier to listen to — especially on NPR, which I suspect boosts their vocal bass. I don’t think that’s too much to ask today?

mac pro

Some people may have noticed that Apple has had roughly a 12% market share in the US for a while now (based on car-show laptops, it’s more like 70% among auto writers). Apple sold around 19 million computers in 2016, so there are a few Mac users out there. Why, then, does nobody (in my experience) make a car stereo that can handle those invisible files that Apple drops all over your USB drive? I’m talking about the search indices, resource forks, and “how you want to view this” files. Some car stereos spend a few seconds on each one, then move on; others just stall and die. None can handle Mac-formatted media, but that’s more understandable.

Come on, guys… telling the system to ignore a small number of files isn’t that hard. Step up your game.

Likewise, learn how to handle large USB drives. My 2013 Dodge can deal with a 32GB drive; I’ve driven 2018s that stalled to nothing on half that. We live in 2018, 64GB should be the minimum. Processors are fast and memory is cheap.

usb thumb drive in stereo

Then there are the edge cases, like audiobooks — it seems that few cars know how to handle them. Apple’s AirPlay can apparently deal with audiobooks when plugged in, but not on BlueTooth (or is it the other way around?). Is it really that hard to remember where you parked a track?

Some cars do a fine job of remembering where you left off (cheers to Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram, at least the ones with “big” UConnects), others forget each time, others seem to be random.

And what’s with this thing where you end an album and go back to the beginning, by default, with no way to change the setting? I’m looking at you, Toyota!

car radios

Years ago, I drove a Lincoln with a fine spatial imaging system which could optimize the sound more (make fewer compromises) for one or two passengers, or do the usual good-for-everyone setup. I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.

Finally, I think it’s time we give up on the integrated car stereo entirely. They are hard to build to “ten years without breakdowns” specs, and a relic of earlier times. Publishing a specific acceptable form factor and APIs would be the best way to move forward, industry-wide; by all means, firewall the feeds, but standardize the I/O and let the aftermarket deal with the screens and user interfaces. Put a dock into each car, let Apple or the Android crowd supply the hardware, and be done with it!

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