What the Hell Is Spotify’s Tragically Named “Car Thing”?

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The streaming giant’s new gadget is a glorified Bluetooth remote for your phone. Will listeners take to it?

The Spotify logo is displayed on a smartphone
Photo by Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

No, this is not a late April Fool’s gag: The new Spotify gadget for your car is literally called Car Thing. After years of development under this name, it seems the aggressively banal placeholder is here to stay. But the moniker is weirdly useful for Spotify: On the one hand, the company can present itself as knowingly quirky—We have fun here, wink wink—and on the other, it successfully sidesteps the question of what exactly this new device does, or who it is actually for. “Car Thing” is so brilliantly, nebulously designated that it can be whatever Spotify needs it to be, now and in the future.

So, what exactly is it? Officially announced today (April 13), Car Thing is a Spotify controller that can be mounted in your car. It features a four-inch touchscreen, a dial for menu navigation, and most importantly, four microphones, which can be used to issue voice commands. You power it over USB and connect it to your phone over Bluetooth. You then connect your phone to your car stereo in whichever way you’ve been doing that so far (Bluetooth, aux input, or USB). You also need a Spotify Premium account to use Car Thing. For now, it’s a limited release, available for free to select users who sign up to receive it (and pay for shipping costs). If it gets a wide release, it will retail for $80.

If you’re wondering to yourself how this is any different from just mounting your phone on your dash, you aren’t alone. Unlike other info-tainment dashboard units enabled with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which give you access to maps and other services, this one only does one thing: Play Spotify. By the looks of it, Car Thing is basically a fancy remote control for an app that you can easily control from your phone, but that you also have to plug in.

Car Thing may prove useful for drivers of older cars without dashboard systems, older Spotify users who crave simplicity, or perhaps diehard music fans who are sick of swapping between Spotify and navigation apps while in the driver’s seat. But smartphone-compatible dashboards are ubiquitous now in many modern cars, with 82 percent of new cars sold in 2019 featuring a touchscreen. So why has Spotify spent so much time and development effort on a product that will be, for many users, somewhat redundant?

One answer is that this is part of what Spotify VP of PR Dustee Jenkins calls its “larger ubiquity strategy.” The availability of something like Car Thing will encourage more people to look to Spotify for their music, podcasts, and other audio, and for current subscribers to use it more, potentially drawing listenership from terrestrial radio, which has taken a nosedive during the pandemic. Radio in the car is one of the final frontiers in audio consumption, and Spotify’s recent investments in the live audio space make it clear: They want it all. Physical hardware gives Spotify an entirely new foothold in the marketplace that it didn’t have before, and it’ll help the company both gain and retain subscriptions in the long term.

The other answer lies in the company’s patent filings. A patent approved earlier this year outlined how Spotify aims to use its proprietary tech to convert audio from users’ microphones into metadata points like emotional state, gender, age, accent, or even how many people you’re with, in order to serve you “better” (emphasis mine) music recommendations. The Spotify app already gives you the option to enable this always-on assistant for your phone, but Car Thing will bring four mics into your car, the place Americans most frequently listen to music outside of home. As The Verge reports, there is a digital setting to disable the microphone, though a built-in privacy switch appears to be lacking. Voice data will also be shared with advertising partners and, according to Spotify’s privacy policy, used to “comply with legal obligations and law enforcement requests” should the need arise.

With Car Thing, Spotify is making a bet that you will sacrifice your privacy for the sake of convenience. They’re also cribbing from the playbook Google and Amazon used with their Nest and Alexa smart speakers, respectively. In recent years, both companies have made liberal use of giveaways as an effective way to get them into more homes, including partnerships with Spotify. Now, Spotify itself is taking a similar route with this initial limited release, acclimating users to the concept of Car Thing with the promise of a free unit. But nothing in life is truly free, is it?


 

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