NOVI, MI – Automakers and suppliers have been working overtime developing lavishly comfortable interiors for future autonomous cars, but until recently the choices for what to do with the spare time they create while traveling has been limited. Typically drivers and passengers are imagined reading, chatting with fellow passengers or catching up on email.

Harman International Industries is putting more infotainment options on the menu.

If you still think of car stereos when you hear the name Harman, you haven’t been paying attention. The company, now in the process of being acquired by Samsung for about $8 billion, has transformed itself into a major supplier of connected infotainment technologies and software for automotive and consumer electronics.

It recently presented a dazzling array of exhibits at its new North American headquarters here in a suburb of Detroit that was first shown at CES in early January.

Harman’s most eye-catching demonstrations involve autonomous vehicles. Its Ambisonics Escape concept turns a vehicle’s entire greenhouse into interior display screens capable of showing movies or starry views of space rivaling the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

Also on the exhibit floor is a futuristic Rinspeed Oasis autonomous ride-sharing concept car featuring a full windshield heads-up display using holographic augmented reality.

In addition to the self-drivers, there are some clever ideas for expanding the appeal of car audio systems to Millennials and demos of new cyber-security and user-experience analytics products.

Creating Personal Sanctuaries

The Summit Next concept, showcased in a new Hyundai Genesis, is aimed not only at delivering a new level of audio experiences with next-generation acoustic processing, but also turning a vehicle into a personal sanctuary through a feature called Ambisonics Escape, which transports drivers into natural surroundings that are projected on vehicle windows. 

Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, occupants can see a pristine beach or mountain landscape outside the car and fall asleep while the audio system recreates surf and chirping birds through a full 360-degree sound field. You can actually feel the pounding waves through the seat created by special actuators.

But if you are not the outdoorsy type, the supplier’s spatially responsive soundstage will make the music in the vehicle cabin match the route – responding to curves in the road, tunnels, even acceleration and deceleration.  

Then there is an in-car video-conferencing feature that makes you feel like you are in the same room with all the participants. Video feeds from each person are projected on the windshield and side windows. Sound processing spatially separates each of the voices, giving the sensation they are surrounding you in the cabin.

And then there is a theater-like viewing experience that expands the projection screen over the windshield and side windows for a totally immersive, professional surround-sound viewing experience.  

New Vision for Car Sharing

The Rinspeed Oasis concept is based on the idea that even vehicles designed specifically for ride sharing will be more customized and personalized for different types of consumers and uses.

“This car gives a look at what ride-sharing will look like in the future,” Tom Rivers, Harman’s vice president-Connected Car, tells WardsAuto. “OEMs and brands have to start thinking about the user experience and what is (the OEM’s) unique user experience if nobody owns a car?”

The Oasis, which is designed for ride-sharing in an urban environment, can be driven much like a conventional car or allowed to drive autonomously. It features full-windshield HUD technology and high-resolution 3D maps, offering a future look at the user interface and how drivers and passengers can interact with their cars.

It picks up personal information regarding social media and dining preferences from the cloud and will display information on the windshield and even call out nearby favorite restaurants and stores.

Guidance and route information is displayed holographically, hovering in midair between the windshield and the occupants. The Oasis offers a glimpse at the future of autonomous driving and how advanced, holistic vehicle intelligence will transform the driving experience, Harman says. 

One of the biggest concerns about partially autonomous vehicles is ensuring the transition between autonomous mode and manual mode is handled safely. Harman’s answer combines haptic feedback, eye-gaze tracking and the driver’s cognitive load readiness through pupil monitoring, to ensure the driver is truly engaged and able to safely take control of the steering wheel. And there is a brief countdown for the handoff displayed visually on the windshield.

Audio Systems Aimed at Millennials

Even though it has moved heavily into connected-vehicle technology and software development, Harman still is doing leading-edge work in more conventional audio systems.

Its Voyager Next audio platform fits snugly into a Fiat 500 prototype.  An embedded, connected head unit pairs with smartphones enabling, music, navigation and other capabilities, while also providing support for leading industry platforms including Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, Baidu CarLife and SmartDeviceLink. It gives users several ways to connect any smartphone to the car regardless of make or operating system.

An array of next-generation micro speakers is situated at the top of the center stack. Even though each micro speaker isn’t much bigger than a postage stamp, together they deliver big, high-quality sound and offer a variety of listening experiences from being in a stadium to a small club. 

Dual-core micro sub-woofers are 80% smaller than traditional subwoofers, allowing them to be eliminated from the door structure. This is a big deal for engineers and designers desperate to reduce weight and find more space in vehicle interiors.   

Also, a full-range JBL (one of Harman's brands) portable audio system smaller than a liter-bottle of soda fits into its own little niche in the Fiat’s cargo area. When it is in the car it works in concert with the other speakers, but it has a handle and can be popped out of the vehicle and used like an old-school boom box (only with better sound) or paired with other smart audio devices for impromptu parties away from the vehicle or as part of a home entertainment system.

Basically, home, car and mobile audio systems all become one in the same. This advanced connected architecture completely redefines the conventions of traditional automotive audio and connectivity, opening it up to new audiences and price points, Harman says.

dwinter@wardsauto.com