DAB radio in cars and the digital switchover

Published: 22 November 2010

Britain's motorists face a £1 billion+ bill to fix their car radios so they work after the digital switchover, a CAR Magazine investigation reveals.

The Government plans to switch off the FM signal and move the UK's broadcasting industry to DAB digital radios - mirroring the switchover from analogue to digital televisions.

The official target for the digital radio switchover is 2015, but many commentators predict that date will slip as there is a great deal of work to be done before Britain is ready. The Government has pledged it will not flick the switch until the DAB broadcasting network at least equals the reach of the existing FM infrastructure.

The DAB radio swithcover: what it means to motorists

Very few cars have digital radios today; on most vehicles, you'll have to spend around £250 upgrading to a DAB car radio from the options list. Yet the take-up is very low: just 4.1% of car radio listening is done on DAB in Britain today, compared to 31% of us tuning in digitally at home.

That means there will be an enormous number of 'legacy' vehicles on the roads without DAB radio - effectively left in silence after the proposed 2015 switchover. Some cars with upmarket sat-nav systems face further problems, as the use of radio signals for traffic updates will affect old units using the FM frequency.

CAR Magazine can reveal that 20m-25m cars will be left in radio silence, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders' digital radio taskforce.

Lee Harris, who chairs the in-car sub-committee of the SMMT's radio group, said: 'The effect of switchover will be most felt on the legacy vehicles. If we assume a switchover of 2015 or a year or two either side, and a 15-year lifecycle of a typical car, there will be 20 million to 25 million vehicles on the road whose radios won't work.'

So what do I do if my car has no DAB radio?

You'll have two choices, according to Harris, who's helping draw up the national guidelines on how motorists and the industry will cope with the digital radio switchover.

Most modern cars have the radio built into the dashboard, unlike the old DIN-slot radios of yore that could be easily switched. That means you'll either have to use a cheap clip-on digital radio mounted on your dashboard, running from the cigar lighter and connecting to the existing stereo through an auxiliary jack or Bluetooth - or a more expensive integrated system.

The cheapest systems, like today's third-party Pure Highway tuners pictured above, will cost as little as £40. But a fully integrated system, with the digital radio built in the dash and operating with the steering wheel controls and dashboard read-outs, will cost 'from £100 as a starting point with upwards of 30 minutes of installation,' according to Harris.

With up to 25 million cars affected and the minimum repair cost of £40, UK motorists face a bill of at least £1 billion to prepare their cars for the digital radio era. Assuming that many motorists will want an integrated solution, that bill is likely in reality to spiral to several times that.

CAR's advice to motorists how to prepare your car for digital radio

If you're buying a new or secondhand car any time soon, make sure you spec DAB. It's only around £250 today as an option on a new car, but the industry will install it as standard from 2013.

Harris told CAR that he expects a rapid take-up of DAB over the next year, with 70-80% of new UK cars likely to offer digital radio as standard equipment from September 2011. Don't be caught in a car without DAB, as its value could be affected and you'll be left facing an expensive upgrade and a weaker residual value when you come to sell.

It seems likely that the Government's 2015 target date may well slip. But the switchover is inevitable, so make sure you prepare your car as soon as practical.

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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