DETROIT – The next few years promise to be paradise for music lovers and anybody who needs traffic updates or directions, but it will be an era of uncertainty for auto makers trying to figure out the future of automotive infotainment systems.

MP3 players, Satellite Radio, high-definition (HD) radio and cell phones all are vying to stake out turf in vehicle interiors, but there are no clear signposts as to where consumer preferences ultimately will lead, or whether today’s iPod might become tomorrow’s 8-track player.

All the above technologies are boasting the ability to supply high-quality audio and a mind-numbing array of information and entertainment options.

That includes the capability to automatically capture and replay a huge variety of music, as well as provide information services such as help in finding an open parking place in the city.

But a new vehicle takes three or four years to develop, goes another four or five years before it is redesigned and ultimately lasts 15 years or more before it finally is crushed and recycled.

With that kind of product cycle, how do auto makers integrate or accommodate the latest consumer electronic devices, whose designs may last only 12 or 18 months before they are declared obsolete or out of style?

Electronic infotainment suppliers at the recent Incoming Entertainment session of last week’s Ward’s Auto Interiors Show say it won’t be easy.

If there is one thing auto makers and suppliers need to do, it is develop more and better standards for both wireless Bluetooth and standard mechanical connections for consumer electronic devices in vehicles, panelists say.

Despite a few reservations about connectivity issues, speakers laid out a vision for their respective technologies that shows extraordinary growth in coming years.

Steve Cowherd, senior director-OEM Business Development of iBiquity Digital Corp., which licenses HD radio technology, says nine OEMs have committed to making HD radio available on 49 models in the next several years.

HD radio provides vastly improved AM and FM radio reception, the ability to receive multiple channels on the same station and numerous data and navigation services,as well as future capabilities such as on-demand audio. Almost 800 radio stations already are broadcasting high-definition signals in 88 of the top 100 markets, Cowherd says.

BMW AG currently offers HD radio as a $500 option but the price is expected to plummet rapidly, and HD radio is expected to eventually dominate terrestrial radio.

Bernie L. Malonson, senior manager-business development, Motorola Digital Media Services, outlines a concept called iRadio, available on media optimized cell phones starting this year. The cell phones become portable entertainment devices that will wirelessly connect with hundreds of music and talk channels, download music, and then link with car and home entertainment systems via Bluetooth connections.

Over 435 channels of commercial-free radio will be available on iRadio compatible cell phones. Specific channels, such as the Ford Mustang channel or the Chevy HHR channel, could be developed based on buyer demographics, Malonson says.

After somewhat provocatively announcing that XM Radio was the only true entertainment company represented on the panel, Paul Kirsch, vice president-OEM, XM Satellite Radio, stresses that it is content, not technology, that is the most important factor in winning over consumers.

“Content is king and technology is queen,” at XM, Kirsch says, running down a long list of new programming and services XM plans to offer, from its deal with Oprah Winfrey to comedy and audio books and more than 20 channels devoted to instant traffic and weather updates.

Streaming video and XM's ParkingLink, which sends real-time parking information to the vehicle, so drivers can click on a desired parking spot and let the navigation system guide them to it, are other features coming down the road from XM.

After a testy exchange between Kirsch and Malonson, T.C. Wingrove, Visteon Corp. senior manager-North American product marketing, introduces himself by saying: “I’m the only guy up here that hopes these other guys succeed.”

Visteon has divested itself of two dozen operations in the past year but makes clear infotainment is one of its core businesses.

Observers might guess that aging baby boomers will gravitate to HD radio because it promises to be the least technologically challenging, while Gen Y consumers will opt heavily for cell phone-based entertainment and information because it is the technology with which they are the most familiar. Satellite radio would fall somewhere in-between.

But Cowherd says demographic stereotypes don’t apply when it comes to infotainment. “We’re not seeing it in the research we’ve purchased,” Cowherd says.

The other panelists agreed, adding that lifestyle, not age, is a much better predictor of consumer choices.

“Demographics is the old way of looking at it; we talk about psychographics,” says Wingrove.

Visteon was the first OEM supplier of HD radios using iBiquity’s technology, but it also partners with competing technologies such as satellite radio and wireless technologies.

dwinter@wardsauto.com