Upgrading Tesla’s Vehicle Entertainment System

Brian Lakamp
Jul 17, 2018 · 11 min read

There is considerable detail upfront in this article to frame the issues and consider strategy. For a quicker reading, skip to “Simpler Navigation Hierarchy” and “Getting Fancy”.


Teslas are incredible vehicles. High performance and beautifully integrated, bumper to bumper. Components and finishes have been deeply considered and designed to deliver simple elegance and maximal utility. With one exception.

The entertainment system.

Sure, it’s functional, but it’s clunky. The navigation is inconsistent, the partner integrations are weak; the experience is not sexy.

Inconsistent Navigation

First, there is little consistency. The top-level menu consists of Radio, Streaming, TuneIn and Phone… one is an audio format; one a means of delivery, another a service provider, and the last is a catch-all for any Bluetooth-connected devices, which may or may not be phones. One can listen to “radio” under any of those headings, even though one heading is specifically called Radio. Plus, the player functionality changes across each category.

It’s unnecessarily confusing. For example, it’s not clear where to go for playlists or podcasts, unless one gets adventurous and digs (unsatisfactorily) into Streaming and TuneIn.

Weak Partner Integrations

Second, other than SiriusXM, the partner integrations are lacking. TuneIn doesn’t deliver all that much in the current integration, at the expense of valuable screen real estate. TuneIn podcasts commonly have broken links. Even the partnership with Slacker, though not quite as forward in the UI, is underwhelming… Unfortunately, Slacker is no longer an industry-leading solution. Consumers today expect integration with services such as Spotify, Apple Music, MLB, Pandora and iHeartRadio.

Lack of Sex Appeal

Lastly, the overall media interface is somewhat boring visually. Ho hum. It doesn’t compare with the wow factor of Tesla’s navigation system, which is gorgeous. The music system is an amazingly uninteresting anchor on an otherwise stunning cockpit console.

All of it detracts, however slightly, from the Tesla brand that goes to “11” everywhere else.

STRATEGIC CONTEXT

It’s important for Tesla to get entertainment right. Undeniably, the radio / music integration has been a critical function in cars for 50 years. It is easy to argue that entertainment systems become doubly important in vehicles evolving toward autonomy, where consumers will have more attention to offer. (Ultimately, autonomous vehicles might evolve to include large video screens and experiences (movies, TV, news, video conferencing), which might become defining entertainment opportunities.)

Musk’s long-term strategy around entertainment is unclear. A proprietary music service called TTunes was rumored; Musk indicated it was a joke. Tesla’s potential purchase of Slacker was another whisper. Spotify integration in North America has been discussed. One would assume there is long-term strategic calculus, otherwise it seems logical that Tesla would have already integrated/added Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio a long while back.

Tesla could take a couple approaches, including the proprietary approach, which would likely be a mistake at this point in Tesla’s trajectory. Like iOS and Android in the early days, Tesla would be well served to be more open to third-party services, to maximize its product value and user experience. That said, such integrations need to be tightly defined to deliver a consistent, clean and safe experience.

With a defined platform for 3rd party integration, Tesla can begin amassing a base of 3rd party developers (which might become strategically important as a competitive asset) and simultaneously preserve optionality for a myriad of future strategic scenarios… scenarios that might include video, smart city integrations, in-home service extensions (as part of Tesla Energy strategies), or a seamless entertainment experience across home and mobility.

STARTING WITH BASICS

Several foundational items need to be defined and solidly in place first to make an overall entertainment experience “kick-ass“, regardless of the UI architecture or hierarchy.

Cover art

The current cover art matching needs work. Station art is missing entirely on FM and XM radio stations, which should be easy to include, at a minimum. Album art (for the currently-playing track) should be available too at this point.

“How much more black could this be?”

Plus, cover art is really inconsistent, particularly on podcasts played from one’s phone. The art is often missing or delivers crazy, confidence-draining pairings, even on popular podcasts like Pod Save America and Revisionist History.

What on earth?

Player

The Tesla player has two modes, mini-player and full player. In the current player implementation, the layout, behavior and functionality is inconsistent across listening experiences…

Some listening experiences open with the player in expanded mode (Radio); some open with the mini-player (Streaming, TuneIn, Phone). In select scenarios, the expanded player contains advanced navigation (FM); in most cases, it doesn’t. Controls move to different locations. In the mini player, controls live to the left or they flank the meta data, depending upon what one is listening to.

Changing player layouts

The simple rule here is “be consistent”.

Keep the player layout the same, and consistently open in the same player mode. Keep discovery in the discovery pane, and don’t embed it occasionally in the expanded player.

In addition to player consistency, two other player changes bear consideration. When meta data is available, it would be valuable to include an icon to “Add to Tesla Favorites”. (Notably, doing so requires track matching across services, which is “non-trivial”.) It may also prove valuable to visually indicate the source service (TuneIn, Slacker, XM) in the player with a modestly-sized icon.

Favorites

Favorites is reasonably executed, though there are two issues that should be resolved.

First, there is a forced hierarchy to Favorites. The hierarchy becomes frustrating for users that have a “Go To” that they cannot move to the top of the hierarchy. For example, a fan of KCRW News (a streaming radio station) is forced to place that favorite after all the FM and XM station favorites. Second, cover art doesn’t consistently carry through to Favorites. Both issues are irritating… and should be easily fixable.

Why can’t KCRW Eclectic be my primary Favorite?

Voice integration

The current hit/miss ratio is lower than it should be, and overall voice capability is somewhat middling. Tesla’s audio interaction needs to work with higher consistency to drive toward a seamless experience, particularly in entertainment interfaces. A seamless experience also requires Tesla to move to ambient (touchless) engagement. Notably, that should be enabled as “opt in” through preferences, to navigate privacy concerns. Lastly, voice interaction also needs to evolve to support an ever-broadening set of interactions and capabilities.

Partner services

The recommendation herein assumes integration of multiple partner services. Today, those services consist of TuneIn, Sirius XM and Slacker. The recommendation is to support an expanded set. The addition and management of those services should be added to Settings. (It is also worth considering how services marry with driver profiles to avoid pollution of the primary user’s music services.)

In thinking through partner services, work needs to be done to either set precedence or manage integration of services. For example, if multiple partners provide playlists, decisions need to be made… Does one service “own” the primary directory listing or is some integrated directory to be enabled? (The former is likely the simpler, cleaner approach.)

Search

Search is good in its current form, though upgrades will be necessary as additional partner services are enabled. For example, the ability to distinguish content from different services becomes important. That can be handled by iconography, or with separate result groups.

SIMPLER NAVIGATION HIERARCHY

With all of the above in mind, one can tackle a better, simpler UI framework and entertainment experience. There are a couple logical paths forward, and the suggested framework below (as well as the naming) is merely one approach.

Navigation Hierarchy

It is worth noting that naming is important, but highly debatable. “Music” could easily be labeled “Collection”, “Library”, or “My Music”, among others. Let’s not get hung up on that here… it bears separate discussion and can be adjudicated with focus testing.

Radio

First, let’s define Radio as content that is continuous (24x7), embeds “on air” hosts and generally includes advertising. In Tesla’s current incarnation, Radio breaks into 2 categories (FM and XM), and both default to the full player. With definition in hand, it seems better to break Radio into 3 categories (FM, XM and Streaming). Further, it is suggested that the Radio experience open in the mini-player form and move navigation from the player to the discovery pane.

Radio Hierarchy

For FM, the tuner dial is a great means to select stations. Nonetheless, the FM experience bears several upgrades:

For XM, clicking “Next” or “Back” as the primary means to surf, station by station, to a known channel is frustrating. The discovery pane should include an XM “tuner”, a horizontal and scrollable channel listing. Plus, the XM stations need cover art. Like the FM experience, XM listening also begs to pull in music meta data and cover art for the music, where available to maximize XM for discovery.

For Streaming, it is suggested to migrate the current promoted groups and category-based navigation under the Radio header. Artist radio, ala Pandora and iHeartRadio, might be featured here as well.

Music

We’ll define Music as the “on-demand” music experience, where users have access to their music collection, absent of ads. It is recommended that the Music experience break into 3 categories: Playlists, Artists and Albums.

Music Hierarchy

Under each category, the discovery experience should feature “My Playlists” (or Artists or Albums) as applicable, in the top row(s). Under My Playlists, “Tesla Favorites” might be permanently placed as the primary playlist to give users ready access to songs favorited elsewhere.

Below “My ***”, the experience should provide merchandising or “For You” and “Top ***”, as well as a genre-based drill down. It is suggested that the Tesla team work with partners and define a consistent approach that partners can support.

Podcasts

Podcasts have become extremely popular and bear promotion to the top level of the listening experience. Under discovery a merchandised set (or two) of options like “For You” or “Top Podcasts” should be included, plus a genre-based drill down. Cover art needs to be upgraded to work consistently, and the frequent connection issues to popular podcasts like Recode need to be nailed. Generally-speaking, though, the Podcast experience should be very straight forward.

GETTING FANCY

With the core experience in place, extensions might be evaluated to make the experience uniquely Tesla. The list below is merely submitted for consideration.

Cover Art Backgrounds

To make the player more visually interesting, Tesla might consider taking the currently-applicable cover art , and transforming that image for a unique and subtle background variations that add some color. Such touches provide a means to make the player itself more engaging and deliver a better looking console.

Notifications

There are select scenarios where it might be valuable to highlight relevant content such as breaking news, speeches (like State of the Union address), weather advisories, major sporting events, album releases or product announcements. A notification system, either as a pop-up window or built into the player, might be considered for such content. Done right, these notifications can add significant value to the in vehicle experience.

“Disc Changer” Mode

Today’s music experiences have largely moved to the single and playlist as the primary means to consume an artist’s work. Nonetheless, the album has value, with unique enjoyment tied to immersing oneself in an artist’s complete body of work. Tesla might consider a special “Easter Egg” that gives a user access to a listening experience with six user-selected albums, depicted as album covers, that “on touch” drop the user into an album listening experience.

“What Song is This?”

For music played from a connected Phone, there are often times when it is desirable to identify the currently playing song or save to favorites. Picking up the phone is not convenient (or safe) in such scenarios. It’d be valuable to enable a voice service to identify the current song or add to favorites.

Such functionality could be provided with a partner like SoundHound, who might also be leveraged to match all music to a canonical source and improve voice recognition.

Profiles

Tesla uses driver profiles for seat settings. As suggested above, it might prove useful to extend the driver profile to include integrated music services and favorites. These profiles might later be used to customize the entertainment experience across vehicles including Tesla ride-sharing and autonomous experiences.

Sports

With SiriusXM and TuneIn partnerships, Tesla has access to an incredible amount of sports programming. With the coming release of the Tesla Y, likely geared to an alpha male demographic, the introduction of a Sports category in the listening experience might prove highly valuable. If done well, MLB and other sports services might be added, and the experience might highlight live games or even customize to select sports preferred by the profile user.

Tesla might announce Sports in conjunction with a Tesla Y announcement to build excitement, and enable it immediately thereafter from Preferences for S and X users.

Audiobooks

While Audiobooks may not top the list of most-listened content, they are engaging for a great many users, particularly during lengthy commutes. A simple audiobook partnership could add significant perceptual value to the Tesla’s entertainment systems.

Sonos Partnership

Admittedly, the concept here is not fully formed. Nonetheless, Sonos seems to potentially provide a partner of strategic value for several reasons:

The notion here is admittedly a wildcard. Only Musk and Tesla executives have the information necessary to understand if it might make sense.

CONCLUSION

Having built music services, I understand that building music applications is not easy, and it is far easier to guide from the outside than to implement from the inside. The above is not intended as critique, rather as constructive input to make the Tesla experience increasingly compelling. God speed, Tesla.

Brian Lakamp

Written by

Field notes from the front lines of the media and the Enernet. iHeartRadio, Totem and beyond.

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