I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of how hard it is for digital radio startups like Slacker, Pandora and MOG to get into the dashboards of new vehicles. It takes a long time — between two and five years, which is longer than the lifespan of many less-capitalized music startups. Further, it costs a lot — something like $500,000 to $1 million worth of back-end work per app, some estimate. Beyond that, each vehicle requires special customization. Pandora has made the most traction because it has dedicated 30-some people to the development of its in-car systems. “Automotive has stubbornly remained a black box, with the exception of Pandora,” says Chia-Lin Simmons, Vice President of Content and Marketing at Aha Radio.
She would know: Over the last few years, she’s watched Aha strike deals to be in a long list of new cars. Aha Radio, which has been owned by auto OEM Harman since September 2010, has gone entirely behind the scenes as part of the hardware of the car.
Calling itself “the fourth band” of radio, the product is making the long-term bet that the future of vehicle entertainment systems will be “smart.” Right now, most cars have a “dumb” system, meaning that they act as nothing beyond a connection point for the mobile phone. Aha uses a smartphone data connection, too, but the head-unit dashboard is “smart.” The unit is basically the “quarterback” of the in-car experience, not the phone. When a phone is plugged in to Aha’s system, it is automatically locked.
With 3.4 million units shipping in Europe alone and a presence in Scion, Jeep, Dodge, Subaru, Honda Chrysler, Ford and Porsche vehicles, Aha has figured out the car part.
Now it’s expanding the app part. Bringing in new content partnerships via startups and apps is Simmons’ job. Aha currently boasts 30,000 digital radio stations, alongside content from apps Slacker, Deezer and Rdio. Kid-related content in the form of audio entertainment and audio books is popular. Yelp reviews can help find a place to eat within the food channel, which pulls recommendations based on your location, taking into account which direction you’re headed on the highway.
One of the more bizarre implementations is that Aha Radio will recite Tweets and Facebook status updates from your friends. That seems strange to me since my main use of Twitter is to scan for relevant links, something I couldn’t do while driving. And my main use of Facebook is flipping through friends’ photos, which I also couldn’t do while driving. (Those actions are not available via Aha of course — safety first.) Simmons says the implementation of social content is continuing to improve, with functions like Facebook check-ins and the ability to “like” an update from the car.
Today the company announced even more content: Popular CBS TV shows will now stream audio as it is airing via Aha Radio, including CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, Face the Nation, World News Roundup, as well as CBS’s podcasts and radio news.
Beyond that, Aha has launched a self-publishing system which allows startups, radio networks and other content providers to integrate with the network without going through Simmons. The Publisher Portal allows any creator of audio content to create an Aha station.
The biggest challenge Aha faces is being too early. If you look at the “smart” vs. “dumb” issue with satellite radio, the early years were dominated by after-market products, meaning the dashboard stayed “dumb” for quite some time. Eventually the automakers adopted satellite radio for the dashboard; now it’s more common than not.
Unlike smartphones, which consumers keep for just 18 to 20 months, cars last longer now, too. Last year the average age of cars on the road hit a new record high of 10.8 years old. This means it’ll take even longer to trade in our dumb dashboards for smart ones. Aha has the potential to dominate the content system of new vehicles. Now it just has to wait.