Pandora: We want to be the FM radio of the connected car

If your car is capable of getting an internet connection, then chances are it can stream Pandora. That’s not just some happy coincidence for the music streaming company. Pandora has made the automotive industry a big priority, and the results of the effort are obvious.

Since 2009, [company]Pandora[/company] has partnered with 26 automotive brands, and 145 vehicle models have Pandora software loaded into their dashboards, including the top 10 best selling passenger cars in the U.S., according to the company. Pandora certainly isn’t in every connected vehicle out there, but no other third-party developer can claim that kind of presence in the automobile.

The attention Pandora has paid to the connected car is a result of Pandora’s stated mission: to be at any intersection where radio listening and the internet meet, a topic Pandora CTO Chris Martin will delve into with Janko Roettgers at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference in San Francisco next week. One of the most obvious intersections is the car, where Pandora estimates more than half of radio listening occurs.

Geoff Snyder (photo: Pandora)
Geoff Snyder (photo: Pandora)

“We want to get as close to possible to the FM radio model as possible,” Pandora VP of automotive business development Geoff Snyder told me in an interview last week. “If Pandora was the last thing playing when you get out of your car, we want it to be the first thing playing when you get back in.”

A small but growing market

About 7 million Pandora users have listened to music through an integrated app in their cars – and that doesn’t count the users who simply plug their smartphones into an auxiliary jack in their car’s stereo system. That may not sound like a lot when compared against Pandora’s 250 million registered users or even its 76.4 million active monthly users , but it’s also important to remember that there are relatively few connected cars on the road today.

According to consulting firm McKinsey&Company, only about 8 percent of 1.05 billion vehicles currently on the road have any sort of internet capability. Connected infotainment systems have only emerged in the last few years, and those capabilities have been available largely in higher-end vehicles. If you buy a new [company]Ford[/company] or Chevy today, Sync AppLink and MyLink are often options, but they’re by no means standard.

Source: McKinsey&Company
Source: McKinsey&Company

Compared to smartphones, tablets and PCs, the connected car market is still tiny, but Pandora is more interested in what it could become. People listening to music in their cars are more engaged than when music is playing in the background at home or at work, and that engagement could mean higher advertising rates. Average listening time is longer as well. As more cars become connected a good deal of internet radio traffic could transfer over to the dashboard. Pandora obviously wants to be leading that trend, not following it, Snyder said.

An App for every make and model

Consequently Pandora has done what few other Silicon Valley companies have been willing to do: deal with the byzantine world of the automakers. There is no unified development program for the connected car. Nor are there just a few major operating systems. Every automaker has their own proprietary platform and development program, and Pandora has joined almost every single one of them in order to optimize its service for as many vehicles a possible.

Pandora has been helped out by its own popularity, Snyder admitted. Even in the most closed development programs, it’s not hard to convince automakers that Pandora is a viable app in the dashboard. Pandora has even developed a generic client called Pandora Link that helps car companies to graft its service into their infotainment systems, Snyder said.

Pandora in one of its more sophisticated implementations in the Cadillac Cue infotainment system (source: GM)
Pandora in one of its more sophisticated implementations in the Cadillac Cue infotainment system (source: GM)

In a typical implementation like on Ford’s Sync AppLink, Pandora remains largely on the smartphone, using the device’s radio for its internet connectivity. An accompanying bit of software resides in the dashboard, allowing app to tap into the car’s heads-up display and its command and control system. But as infotainment systems become more sophisticated, for instance Volvo’s new Sensus system, Pandora finds itself integrating directly with the vehicle, running on its OS and using its embedded data connectivity.

While customizing your code for every make and model vehicle might involve a lot of extra work, it’s work Pandora seems entirely willing to do. I asked Snyder what he thought of Google and Apple’s new automotive overlays Android Auto and CarPlay, which promise to greatly simplify the development process for cars. Snyder wouldn’t commit either way to whether Pandora was working with those platforms, but I got the distinct impression Pandora wasn’t that interested.

Pandora wants to optimize the streaming music experience on every car in order to get closer to the FM model of radio listening, Snyder said. If Pandora can better deliver that experience by integrating more closely with an automaker’s native operating system, Snyder said, then that’s what Pandora will do.

Analog broadcasting may seem like an odd technology for a digital streaming service to emulate, but the FM radio does have one thing going for it that Pandora is keenly aware of: It’s almost impossible to buy a car without one.