In-dash CD players are finally going the way of Razor scooters, shell necklaces and Ja Rule. Automakers have predicted this for the better part of the past decade as car stereos augmented the standard CD player with auxiliary MP3 jacks, USB/iPod connectors and, eventually, streaming Bluetooth audio. As far back as late 2011, market researcher NPD Group said nearly a third of people listened to music in their cars via smartphones or MP3 players. And this year, J.D. Power's Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout Study found that as many people listen to CDs as external devices, like an iPod or a smartphone. In past APEAL studies, more drivers still listened to CDs.
It's already happening, and not just in tech-heavy cars like the Tesla Model S. Opt for the 8.4-inch multimedia touch-screen in a 2013 Dodge Dart, and the CD player goes into the center armrest — a spot that underlines just how many drivers Dodge expects to use it. Up-level versions of the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee and redesigned Grand Cherokee, meanwhile, forego CD players entirely. You can still get one, but it goes in the center armrest or glove compartment. Chevrolet's 7-inch MyLink touch-screen in the 2014 Sonic eliminates the CD player altogether. And in the 2014 Kia Soul and 2013 Chevrolet Spark, you can't buy a CD player in any trim.
Are we just a few years away from CD players becoming extinct? And what are car designers doing with the free space?
We reached out to a number of automakers to find out. Ford, Honda and Hyundai said their vehicles still have tried-and-true CD players, but all three are monitoring customer habits to see when that will change.
"Will CD players go away completely? That is for our customers to decide," Amy Marentic, Ford's global car and crossover marketing manager, told us. "We monitor usage and will react accordingly."
Hyundai agrees. Product Planning Director Scott Margason said the automaker is "tracking CD demand to determine application in the future."
They Need the Space
In the Sonic, Dart and both Jeeps, larger touch-screens take up space where the CD slot might have gone. That makes sense; after all, the center stack is some of the most sought-after — and sometimes crowded — space inside a car. But how much does the CD player really take up? Not much, Honda's James Jenkins said.
"It's obviously a horizontal line in the dashboard, very short in height — [a] quarter of an inch," said Jenkins, who manages Honda's product planning department. "We've never had an issue where a designer has said, you know, we can make it better if you didn't have a CD player. It's relatively small in space."
Klaus Busse, Chrysler's interior design chief, disagrees.
"The center stack is such precious real estate — it's like the waterfront in Chicago," he said. "Every millimeter, not just every inch, counts."
What's more, Busse cautioned, all the components in that area generate heat and take up room behind the scenes — affecting, for example, the routing of air-conditioning ducts. Cluster them too close together, and you complicate packaging or risk overheating.
"If you don't have to worry about this CD-player brick, you have much more flexibility in how you can do that," he said. "Those are not decisions we make in a five-minute water cooler meeting. Those are very important discussions."
GM products like the new Chevy Impala and Cadillac XTS have a hidden compartment behind the touch-screen equipped with a USB port that can store a good-sized smartphone and wallet.
Cost considerations are an important part of any interior design too — and CD players add to that. But it's not much, Honda's Jenkins said.
"It's not pennies, but it's not significant either," Jenkins said. "We have data that shows [sic] that obviously a lot of people don't use a CD player ... [but] we still have some percentage of buyers who still have 300 CDs and haven't made the leap to iPads or iPhones, so we have to project for them too."
Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates, agrees.
"There's sort of a cluster of different groups of people who are still using the CD more than they are the external device," VanNieuwkuyk said. "There's so much investment in our CD catalogs, and if you're sort of in a family situation there's so much more pressing [financial] needs."
Will there be a year when in-dash CD players go completely extinct? Officials at Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Hyundai were reluctant to venture a guess. VanNieuwkuyk thinks it will be a slow exit, pointing to the lengthy exit of cassette decks.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see 10 years down the road that we still have CDs in some models," he said. "I think it's fair that sometime in the 2020s that might be about the time."
When that happens, the trusty CD slot will become an artifact of the past. Chrysler's Busse says he already sees it.
"If you get into a car that's 20 years old, and you use the cassette player in that car, you say, 'Oh look at that thing — it's old, the technology screams, 'I'm an old car,' " he said. "We see the CD slot on a [dashboard] surface, and it actually feels old already."