Lexus, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Nio are some of the brands tapping into audio experts to develop immersive systems calibrated to their complex interior environments.
Immersive sound technology in vehicles offers automakers the chance to differentiate themselves from the competition and provide a next-level audio experience for consumers who are demanding premium quality entertainment while on the road.
Noise cancellation technology is a key part of the package given that electric vehicles don’t have the sound of the engine to cover up exterior noise issues.
Also, as autonomous vehicle (AV) technology evolves and as vehicle connectivity leads to diverse, upgradable infotainment options, an immersive sound experience is expected to take on growing importance, especially among premium automakers.
Immersive audio technology is in its infancy. In 2021, Dolby Atmos Music and Mercedes partnered to bring immersive audio to the automaker’s flagship S-Class and Mercedes-Maybach lines.
Select Audi vehicles can be outfitted with a Bang & Olufsen 3D Advanced Sound System, while Ford Motor’s premium brand, Lincoln, launched a high-end audio collaboration with Revel in 2014.
Tesla’s 2021.32.20 over-the-air update gave its users more granular control over the immersive sound system found inside the EV maker’s models.
Continental and Sennheiser are looking to use surfaces inside the vehicle to produce sound through their Ac2ated system, which can reduce weight and space by up to 90 percent compared with conventional systems.
Christoph Falk-Gierlinger, Continental’s managing director of engineering services, said that with this solution the interior of the car makes the sound rather than the speakers.
“It’s a very voluminous sound experience because it’s all over the car, and it’s a completely different feeling of sound and music,” he said. “There are between three and seven components integrated in the car to completely replace the loudspeaker.”
The technology is due to launch on premium models from several unnamed automakers by 2024.
“Immersive audio is the next step after surround sound,” Gartner analyst Pedro Pacheco said.
But making that next step is a complicated process because of the wide variations in terms of interior specifications, especially in autonomous cars, said Lars Carlsson, who is vice president and head of business development automotive at Swedish digital audio specialist Dirac.
As seat arrangements become more widespread, that changes the passenger’s relationship to the speakers, Carlsson said.
Before tackling that challenge Dirac and the American sound technology pioneer Dolby partnered to create immersive audio through Dirac’s audio optimization algorithms, which are used in combination with Dolby’s Atmos immersive audio platform.
The goal is to provide a well-balanced sound field across all seating positions, carefully calibrated to the interior layout.
The technology will debut first in Chinese EV startup Nio’s ET7, a rival to the Tesla Model S, before finding its way into the cabins of European automakers.
“There’s a growing demand for in-car entertainment as a selling point for a car,” Carlsson, said. “Our product roadmap is to productize our tools so that more audio consultants, automakers and Tier 1s can work with our algorithm in the future.”
Pacheco said even the materials used inside the car can have an effect on the sound.
“One audio system must be tuned for leather seats and another one tuned for fabric seats,” he said.
In addition, the tuning depends on what objects, people or pets are in the cabin.
Audio system technicians must also consider the level of surrounding noise entering the cabin and the vibration affecting the vehicle.
“All these factors make it pretty hard to create a stable environment, because in the car, many things change from second to second,” Pacheco said.
Continental’s Falk-Gierlinger said the German supplier’s solution provides a “much higher quality of sound because it’s not just in the loudspeaker, it’s completely in the car. When we look at future applications, for example, autonomous driving, the passengers will have a complete different expectation of the user experience in the car.”
The company has also developed an actuator for each individual headrest, so that it is possible for each passenger to listen to his or her preferred music.
Experts in sound
The change in technology has also expanded Continental’s development process beyond the typical engineering team and into a more artistic realm.
“Normally, we have a team of eight of technical experts, electric engineers, mechanical engineers and software engineers,” Falk-Gierlinger said. “In this case, we extended our team to musicians and people that play, for example, a violin or piano, as well as sound designers.”
He said this feedback completely changed the way Continental developed the product.
“It’s not just the technology we focus on,” he said. “It’s really to have this sound experience, and people who have very sensitive hearing are able to develop their product in a complete different direction than an electric engineer is able to do.”
Dirac’s Carlsson added that as more vehicles become equipped with over the air (OTA) software update technology, it will be possible to add features or further enhance the immersive experience.
“That would be a new business model, with more features available on demand,” he said. “We see more and more interest from automakers on this point so they can add services to this software.”
Gartner’s Pacheco agreed that as AV technology evolves and automakers develop more complex immersive sound technologies, consumers will also expect a certain level of quality, especially as the move to EVs continue and owners find themselves with downtime while they wait for their vehicles to recharge.
“The possibilities for the future are much more exciting than what we see nowadays with immersive audio for cars,” Pacheco said. “This move into immersive audio is just the beginning of many more great things to come.”