Morgan Pritchett
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History of In-Car Entertainment: Radio, Cassettes, and Choice

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Old Historic Classic Car Radio in a red Chevrolet
This was a big deal in the early 20th century
Photo: Doc Searls via CC

In-car entertainment wasn’t always as extravagant as it is now. Back in the day, you had to make do with singing songs and trying to get people to guess what roadside objects you were thinking about. Today, we’ve got built-in touch screens and high-definition surround sound. But what came in between?

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Early beginnings

The history of in-car entertainment starts in the late 1920s. By that point, Ford had already built more than 15 million Model Ts. A surge of people on the road meant a surge in boredom on long drives. As a result, cars started being outfitted with radios. Through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, radio was really all there was when it came to in-car entertainment, though FM radio (aka the fun type of radio) didn’t make an appearance until 1952.

Cassette tapes and CDs

Chrysler briefly flirted with the idea of in-car record players, which any vinyl enthusiast would tell you is a terrible idea. Fortunately, the cassette tape — in the form of an 8-track tape — came in to save the day in 1964. For the first time, vehicle occupants could be the ones to decide what to listen to. Then, in 1985, the very first factory-installed in-dash CD players granted users even more freedom and flexibility for their entertainment. In 2001, satellite radio became available to expand entertainment choices even more.

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS touch screen with apps
Most of today’s cars allow you to connect to the internet instantly
Photo: Chevrolet

More options

“Choice” is indeed the theme when it comes to modern in-car entertainment. In 2007, automakers started offering smartphone and MP3 player integration. Today, no cars are made with cassette players and almost none come with a CD player either. Instead, you get your choice of infotainment systems that let you access standard radio, satellite radio, internet radio, and the media stored on your smartphone. Of course, that’s on top of everything else these innovative systems also do, like respond to voice commands and give you directions.

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It’ll be interesting to see where in-car entertainment goes in the future. There may come a point where more entertainment capability will be undesirable, as they can cause distractions that lead to dangerous driving. On the other hand, with self-driving cars around the corner, we may actually get an explosion of in-car entertainment that was never possible before.