AM radio, eight-track, cassettes, CDs. The progression of in-car audio technology hasn’t seen many seismic transformations over the years. That is, until the rise of smartphone technology.
The proliferation of Apple, Android and Windows phones are so closely baked into our lives, it’s hard to think how we’d survive without one. It’s our hub for talking, texting and conversing with friends over social media. And it is fast replacing our CD collection, whether that’s through ripping the CD collection or downloading.
The last few years have seen the rise of streaming services. Operators such as Spotify and Deezer make it possible for you to play music directly from your phone as well as downloading it to play later.
Integration with home audio systems is more elegant than ever and most high-end audio systems from manufacturers across the board support the technology. The reasons for that are clear. According to eMarketer, a digital research firm, there are almost 31 million smartphones in the UK, representing 48.4 per cent of UK residents and 60.4 per cent of all mobile phones.
According to research company, ABI Research predicts that almost 51m cars with live streaming capabilities will be sold worldwide by 2017.
Rara is a relatively recent entrant, to the increasingly crowded market, but claims it is one of the largest by territory reach - it operates in 32 countries. The format of the standard system is familiar. Like Spotify, Deezer, Soundcloud and a number of other services, it allows users to stream and simultaneously download audio directly to a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone.
But where it differs is that thanks to a recent deal will BMW, Rara offers Europe’s first in-car, on-demand streaming service. That means that while other systems rely on the user’s smartphone to stream audio, which is then sent to the car’s audio system, the audio stream can be sent straight to the car via its own 3G connection.
The system is available as an option in a range of models stretching from 1-series to 7-series and X5, which all use BMW’s Navigational system Professional. It is yet to roll out on i3, i8, X1 and X3 models, and Rara won’t be drawn on an agreement with Mini.
The system costs £325, which includes the system, 12 months' Rara subscription and unlimited data with no additional roaming fees in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Netherlands. Year two and beyond costs £225 annually, is understood to be renewable through BMW dealerships, but as it hasn't been rolled out long enough to be a concern, there's no firm view.
By contrast, computer-only contracts cost £4.99 a month, while ‘all-device’ contracts cost £9.99 a month, but both could be subject to additional data charges, depending on the mobile or broadband contract.
The system is fully integrated into BMW’s iDrive system, and works through head-up displays. The always-on audio-only connection allows users to search a library of 22 million tracks from major labels and leading independents. Users can ‘favourite’ tracks and build playlists via their computer, tablet or phone which can then be played in-car.
Album artwork is downloaded and displayed, and all tracks that are streamed are automatically downloaded onto a hard drive meaning audio can be played without a data connection. It will progressively download tracks, and won’t stop playing a downloaded track until the next has sufficiently downloaded. In a demonstration, Rara proved it is entirely likely that an entire album will be downloaded before the first track finishes playing.
Rara’s bosses refused to be drawn on deals with other car manufacturers, but the technology barrier is surprisingly low: the prerequisites are 3G connectivity, similar processing power to that offered by smartphones and a hard drive. The EU is understood to be pushing on with plans to make e-call systems, which dial the emergency services automatically after a crash. Adoption of such a system would push the industry on the path to in-car mobile connectivity, a path which technology such as that provided by Rara will surely benefit from.