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As self-driving cars evolve, so will your car stereo. Here’s how

Philipp Siebourg, Harman's Car Audio Design Director Image used with permission by copyright holder

The forces tugging the automotive industry towards electrification and autonomy promise to shake the definition of a car to its very core.

Auto manufacturers and tech companies are the major players in this on-going shift, but the shockwaves will reach every company with a toe dipped in the sector.

For the audiophiles at Harman, the looming changes are an opportunity to bring motorists new ways to listen to music. We talked with Philipp Siebourg, Harman’s Car Audio Design Director, to get insight on what will change in the coming years.

It’s not only that the engine is quieter; that’s just one component.

Siebourg began our conversation by pointing out designing a sound system for a living room or an office is completely different than developing one with a car because the client is a business, not an individual. Harman’s automotive division must find creative ways to tell each company’s unique story through sound, whether it’s a “just a basics” approach to mobility or something more along the lines of “the relentless pursuit of perfection.”

That’s a tall order, and the advent of electric and autonomous technology throws a wrench into the system. Electric cars are much quieter than comparable gasoline- or diesel-powered models so noises from the road or the wind are more prevalent. Autonomous technology opens the door to a world where cars are shared, not owned. Siebourg affirmed Harman is closely following the industry’s transformation, and it’s prepared to evolve with the times.

The sound system of tomorrow

“It’s not only that the engine is quieter; that’s just one component. We also need to look at the materials cars are built with. For example, we have more carbon fiber elements in the BMW i3. The engine is quieter, and if you have thinner walls you have more noise coming from the outside, so the interior frame is built in a different way,” he said. He added that’s when active noise cancellation comes into play. The same tech that drones out screaming infants on flights will become increasingly common in cars as electrification spreads. It’s called HALOsonic Road Noise Cancellation (RNC). Harman is developing and fine-tuning it in-house for its various brands to use in different areas.

Autonomous cars present bigger challenges. Unless your name is Mr. Bean, you normally sit in the driver’s seat when you’re in control of a moving car. What if you don’t need to drive anymore? Why wouldn’t you flump back into one of the rear seats or take a nap in the trunk? We’re talking about true level five autonomy, not semi-autonomous systems like Autopilot, Pilot Assist, and Super Cruise, among others.

The same tech that drones out screaming infants on flights will become increasingly common in cars as electrification spreads

“The good thing in a car today is we know almost exactly where the person is located. We know where your ears are and we know where your passenger’s ears are, give or take a few centimeters. Autonomous cars are a whole different scenario. They could bring back the trend we saw in homes decades ago when your parents were proud of their new sound system with amps and speakers. They’d unpack it and adjust the speakers themselves to get the best possible sound based on the layout of the room,” Siebourg said.

That means car companies need to become more flexible in how they design stereos. Ultimately, they may need to consider ditching the classic layout where speakers are installed in the doors and on either end of the dashboard in order to move towards a solution better suited to new ways motorists use cars.

Siebourg explained another trend shaping in-car audio is the portable revolution.

Volvo XC40
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“As you might have noticed, headphones are becoming more popular, Bluetooth is becoming more popular, and people use sound bars instead of heavy speakers. They want the same sound experience in their living room, on their couch, or at the dinner table. It’s this scenario we’ll see with autonomous cars,” he said. He revealed Harman will show a concept that illustrates what a next-generation in-car sound system could look like at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a car designed with a sound bar docking station instead of a classic sound system. Siebourg sees two main areas of application for this up-and-coming tech.

“One of them is for low-budget cars, where you cannot really afford to wire the whole car. It is cheaper to have just one source of sound. The second one is for cars that need to be really flexible. It’s not so wild, I think many customers are really interested in this. We have OEMs interested, too.”

The true audiophiles that won’t let a sound bar replace an 18-speaker surround sound system are in for a treat, too. Looking further into the future, Harman could work with car manufacturers to pioneer a more modular approach to sound. “You start by buying the car. Then you can say, ‘okay, I would like to have more volume, a richer sound, or more bass,’ and you can purchase additional equipment to add to your sound system. It’s pretty easy to do.” Siebourg warned it will take a little while before car companies are ready to adopt an à la carte model for in-car sound, so the aftermarket will remain the best solution for drivers seeking a custom sound system in the foreseeable future.

What about today?

Going back to the present, Siebourg talked about some of his recent work with Volvo. The Swedish brand is a leader in the field of car audio, as we found out last year when we went behind the scenes in the company’s sound lab. Siebourg’s team helped design the top-spec audio system available in the brand-new XC40, the company’s smallest crossover. As always, the project focused on integrating the stereo in a way that corresponds to the brand’s image in terms of sound, look, and feel. Every project presents a unique set of challenges, but Siebourg told us working with Volvo is a pleasure.

The New Volvo XC40 | Harman Kardon Audio

“Volvo is a very good customer so it’s difficult for me to say what was the most challenging part [of the project]. They are very transparent and we have a really good relationship with them. We’re proud of what we accomplished with the Harman Kardon sound system,” he summed up. The final design utilized input from designers in Europe (specifically, Sweden) to create a global product that allies the respective design languages of Harman Kardon and Volvo without watering down either side. We can’t wait to check it out.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American automotive and tech journalist based in southern France. As a long-time contributor to Digital…
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