Did the Tablet Kill the Rear-Seat Entertainment System?

September 21, 2015  |  By Michael O'Shea  |       

It’s no secret that rear-seat entertainment (RSE) systems were once one of the hottest-selling automotive electronics products. Less than a decade ago, families everywhere viewed rear-seat DVD players as the must-have option in their SUVs and minivans. But with the rising popularity of tablets like Apple’s iPad, which debuted in 2010, RSE systems have largely gone by the wayside.

So did the tablet really kill the rear-seat entertainment system? Yes … and no. The answer isn’t so cut and dry. Tablets have indeed eclipsed RSE in versatility and affordability — but that only applies to the traditional definition of RSE. Because while the days of propriety, built-in rear-seat entertainment systems may be over, the transformation of RSE is just beginning.

Led by luxury nameplates like Audi, a new type of tablet-based rear-seat entertainment is becoming an attractive option in today’s vehicles.

The Reality of the RSE System

The numbers tell a sad story. According to ABI Research, automaker-installed RSE systems totaled about 2.9 million units worldwide in 2014, and shipments of aftermarket RSE devices totaled about 3.5 million units worldwide — “both figures representing slowly growing markets,” writes the Consumer Electronics Association. On the other hand, Pew Research Center reports that as of 2013, a whopping 43 percent of Americans age 16 or older owned a tablet or ebook reader.

So why the switch? Self-contained RSE systems do have their benefits, after all. For one, there’s the convenience — no need to remember to grab your tablet every time you leave the house, and no worrying about it getting stolen or freezing in cold temperatures if you leave it in the car. Second, there’s the issue of safety. In an accident, a tablet can become a dangerous projectile, which is especially worrisome when you consider it’s likely sitting in a child’s lap.

Sure, embedded RSE systems may cost more than tablets — a typical system these days runs about $1,000 to $2,000 as a factory-installed option, while tablets were running just $294 on average in 2014 — but that premium price is balanced by reliability. Unlike a tablet, the RSE system is always powered up and ready to go; no battery charge or power cords required. It’s also covered by the manufacturer’s warranty and is designed to work seamlessly with the vehicle.

The Allure of the Tablet

Now let’s look at the benefits of using a personal device instead of a rear-seat entertainment system. Of course, there’s the cost; for the price of an RSE system, you could buy several tablets. But even more alluring is the versatility a tablet provides.

Thanks to cellular data plans, consumers can use their tablets to surf the web in the car, giving them streaming access to virtually any on-demand content — games, shows, educational apps, and more. They don’t have to rely on purely physical media (i.e., DVDs) like most traditional RSE systems. On top of that, families have the option to give each child their own tablet, avoiding any squabbling over who watches or plays what.

The Best of Both Worlds

For OEMs, rear-seat entertainment systems are an important recurring revenue stream even beyond the initial hardware sale. Evolving RSE into something consumers are excited about again is paramount to keeping that revenue stream alive.

The key for OEMs is to take the benefits of the traditional RSE system and combine them with the attractive traits of the tablet (the choices, the convenience, and the connectivity). Essentially, offer customers the best of both worlds. That may mean making RSE into a more comprehensive infotainment system with gaming, educational content, HD radio, and Wi-Fi. In fact, according to ABI, multimedia streaming features will spread to more than 63 million vehicles in 2019, up from more than 3.5 million vehicles in 2014.

The Future of RSE

An even more dramatic transformation in RSE is beginning, and it could be the model that many OEMs decide to follow. Audi’s 10.1-inch automotive-grade tablet, designed specifically for use in the car, replaces the traditional headrest-mounted displays and interfaces directly with the vehicle’s infotainment system. Front- and rear-seat passengers can use it to control the radio and navigation. And, an embedded Wi-Fi hotspot means they can also use the Audi’s tablet to surf the web without worrying about the spotty coverage that often plagues wireless communication networks, following the notion of many automakers adding more Wi-Fi hotspots to their line of vehicles for consumers. Along with the potential of adjusting AC levels and streaming media directly to the car’s audio system, there’s a great potential for more and more integration.

While a single tablet comes standard in the 2016 Audi Q7 SUV, buyers have the option to add a second tablet. Unlike a personal tablet, Audi’s tablet can withstand extreme temperatures and has passed crash testing, so it can safely be left in the car. It’s constructed with a special type of glass that won’t shatter on impact, which should ease many parents’ worries. Best of all, the tablet can be undocked and used outside the vehicle, so it’s like getting an RSE system and personal tablet in one.

Of course, many families aren’t in the market for an upscale SUV like the Q7. However, if tablet-based RSE is successful, OEMs may want to think about offering a more affordable version in their lower-end family vehicles.

What other options or avenues can you see automakers heading towards?

Topics: Automotive Trends

Michael O'Shea

Michael O’Shea is the Founder and CEO of Abalta Technologies. He is responsible for all aspects of executive management of Abalta and a direct participant in many client engagements, particularly in management advisory projects.

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