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Spotify Is Finally Rolling Out 'Car Thing.' Will It Stick?

Courtesy of Spotify

The streaming company will make the device available to an invite-only group of U.S. subscribers beginning today.

Buckle up, because Spotify's long-teased smart player for cars, Car Thing, is finally getting its debut.

The streaming giant says it will begin rolling out the device, first introduced as a test product in 2019, to an invite-only group of U.S. Premium subscribers beginning Tuesday (April 13). Car Thing marks Spotify’s first hardware product and is part of the company’s "ubiquity strategy” to create a frictionless listening experience wherever users may be. However, during a pre-briefing with reporters Monday, the company would neither give a definitive timetable for a wider release nor confirm that the product will get one at all.

Car Thing is a three-centimeter thin, 4.5-inch by 2.5-inch touch-screen device where the interface looks exactly like the Spotify app. There are two dials on the right side of the screen: One large dial, which is used to scroll through and select content; and a smaller dial which, when pressed, takes the user back to what’s playing. It comes with three types of mounts that can attach to the car’s CD player, dashboard and air vent.

Spotify’s entire catalog of 70 million tracks, including more than 2.2 million podcast titles, is available on Car Thing. Users can control what's playing by using the touch screen, the two dials or Spotify’s new “Hey Spotify” voice control mode, announced on Friday. With voice control -- which works through four microphones on Car Thing -- users can ask Car Thing to play songs, albums, podcasts, playlists, genres, moods and more, as well as to “like” songs. Users can also save their favorite music and podcasts to four available preset slots, then ask Car Thing to play them by clicking or calling out the preset by number.

“This limited release is not meant to compete with the in-car infotainment systems that many cars have,” Dustee Jenkins, Spotify vp global communications and PR, said at the briefing. “Instead, it’s another step in our layer of our larger ubiquity strategy. It’s all about creating a truly frictionless audio experiences for users wherever they are and however they choose to listen.”

Courtesy of Spotify

Spotify has had its eye on drivers since at least 2017, when it began testing a “Driving Mode” feature and became integrated on navigation app Waze (it launched on Google Maps a year later). When Spotify confirmed the rumored existence of Car Thing in 2019, the company stressed that it would be used only to test in-car listening habits, writing that “Our focus remains on becoming the world’s number one audio platform -- not on creating hardware.”

However, the test results indicated that selling the hardware could be fruitful for the company, as its spokespeople explained at the pre-briefing. Americans on average spend more than 70 billion hours per year behind the wheel, Spotify says, and there are 250 million cars on America’s roads. There are more than 70 million user-generated driving playlists on Spotify globally, and its Songs to Sing in the Car playlist has more than 9 million followers. Spotify has also offered a “Driving Hub” with playlists like Your Daily Drive since 2019, and that hub now includes talk and music morning show The Get Up, which launched last year.

For now, Spotify is inviting a limited group of U.S. users to try Car Thing for free, as long as they cover shipping costs. Car Thing is available to Premium subscribers only (of which there are 155 million), and requires a smartphone with WiFi or a mobile data connection. Subscribers can learn more and get on the waitlist at CarThing.Spotify.com.

“We are in the exploration phase, and we’re excited to see what feedback we get back, but we’re not sharing any definitive timetable on when we’ll be rolling this out more broadly,” Jenkins said, adding that Spotify sometimes decides not to widely release a product after testing. If it does, however, Car Thing’s retail price would be around $80, Spotify head of hardware products Andreas Cedborg said, noting that the target audience would be existing users. (“We looked into quite a few names and took some help,” he added, “but ‘Car Thing’ stuck.”)

Spotify may have solidified itself as the leading online audio brand in the U.S., but it enters a competitive field for in-car audio listening, where AM/FM radio still dominates.

According to Edison Research’s 2021 Infinite Dial study, published in March, 31% of Americans aged over 12 use Spotify the most often out of online audio brands including Pandora, YouTube Music, Apple Music, Amazon Music and iHeart Radio, making Spotify the leading brand. Spotify says that cars are the second most popular place for audio consumption in the U.S. after homes, and it hopes to capitalize on that market with Car Thing.

Courtesy of Spotify

However, for Americans over age 18, online audio is only the fourth most-used audio source when driving or riding in cars, falling behind even CD players. Of that user base, 75% reported using AM/FM radio in the last month (down from 81% in 2020), 48% used owned digital music (holding steady from 2020), 35% used a CD player (down from 41%), 33% used online audio (holding steady from 2020), 30% used podcasts (up from 28%) and 21% used SiriusXM (down from 24%).

Of that user base, 20% already own an in-dash information and entertainment system (up from 6% in 2013 and 18% last year), and 10% have the Apple CarPlay app in their primary vehicle, while 8% have the Android Auto app – both of which already support Spotify.

With Car Thing, Spotify is marketing to the remaining 80% of people who don’t have infotainment systems, but the device will still have to compete with the ways listeners currently use Spotify in their cars. In addition to apps like CarPlay, car manufacturers including BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo already support Spotify in their dashboard systems. And according to the Infinite Dial study, 50% of Americans over age 12 listen to audio in the car by directly plugging aux cords into their mobile phones, up from 45% in 2020.

Especially now that the “Hey Spotify” command is available for both Car Thing and smartphone listening, Spotify now faces the challenge of differentiating Car Thing from the functionality of a Spotify-enabled smartphone.

“We believe we’ve created a user experience that is more optimized for the car,” Cedborg said in response to this point, referencing Car Thing’s four microphones and tactile interface. “The phone is a Swiss Army Knife; you can use it for whatever. But Car Thing is aimed to only play Spotify.”

Again, the product is still in a testing phase, so both the hardware and software may change. The possibilities include integrating Waze or other navigation apps.

“The software can and will be updated fairly regularly, and we will look into quite a few different avenues,” Cedborg added. “We’re aware of what people want to have in the car, so let’s see what the future [brings].”

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