Pandora Is Coming to Your Car

Net radio provider Pandora is preparing to move more aggressively into the automotive space, with deeper integration with car radios and controls on the horizon. During an early afternoon panel at the SF Music Tech Summit, chief technology officer Tom Conrad said the company’s mobile strategy will first hinge on a transitional phase in which its smartphone apps will be controlled from dashboard or steering-wheel interfaces, before dispensing with the smartphones altogether as the service is built into web-connected cars.

Already, Conrad said, half of Pandora’s mobile users are using their phones or iPod touches to enjoy Pandora’s service in their cars, typically by plugging the phone into an existing car stereo’s line-in jack. That’s not too appealing from a safety standpoint, he said, but the company is working with car makers –- including via an existing deal with Ford –- to build in-dash controls that will allow drivers to use Pandora without fumbling around with their phones. This “tethered handset” model will include physically secured mobile devices that are connected to the car’s sound system, possibly via Bluetooth or another technology.

Within a few years, new cars will have Pandora built in and “bundled with either the price of the car or services associated with the car,” he said, ramping up competition with subscription-based satellite radio providers as well as terrestrial radio broadcasters. While he wouldn’t commit to a time frame for the first implementations, and automotive innovation cycles are notoriously long, Conrad hinted that some relevant announcements could be coming out of next month’s CES event in Las Vegas.

Pandora has already succeeded in seamlessly moving from a desktop service to a mobile one, with smartphone adoption driving significant subscriber growth. Having cheated the hangman and stabilized its cost structure this summer, thanks to a licensing agreement forged after an arduous negotiation process, Pandora has the financial runway and the confidence to act on its mobile advantage and expand into the car radio market. After all, isn’t your car another mobile device you rely on?