The Higher Sense of Hearing… The Future of Audio in Cars

Car Interior (John Mantzefield)With the advent of autonomous cars, once the job of driving isn’t needed, what sensation is left to captivate the driver? We will be the captain of the car, but no longer the driver; our seat will literally shift away from concentrating on the road, and our role will shift. The tactile sensation of the road will be distant from us then. What is left to us? What can captivate us?

Even though our vision is considered the most subtle and complex of all our senses, our hearing is more valuable for giving us a sense of place and direction, and for giving us a sense of comfort or discomfort.

Our brain receives information by a mixture of all the senses. Senses are blended, not mutually exclusive. Even if one of them is removed, we compensate because our perception is generated through a combined set of modes of sensation. And, they are perceptually bound together. [1] One example is that we perceive sound through a wide range of pressure differences at our ears, but we also perceive sound through touch at the same time. If we need to and want to, the brain can be re-wired; our perception can be heightened in new ways, because there is a synthesis of information between the senses: Hearing is not only sound, but also touch, and hearing informs touch and orients us.

In just the domain of sound, the pitch of sound is the label we normally assign to it. But even though our brain is very sensitive to that pitch sound, it is even more sensitive to the details of how sound arrives in time. [2] Our brain will receive the pitch and process it, but understand it best by its analysis of the event of the sound: how quickly it occurs and disappears or lingers. Our experience is like walking through the woods and hearing the complexity of wind, leaves, footsteps, branches, bird song and movements, the steps of an animal, our breath, and those around us. We are oriented in the physical world by the complex nature of sound, and it informs and heightens our imagination about the world around us.

There is a higher sense of hearing, and that will be the most valuable thing for the future driver — the captain –and for delivering a higher sense of value to the captain of the car.

So, what will captivate the driver once the job of driving is relieved? A soundscape woven with precision in pitch and time is the answer. Relieved of the distractions of driving, the heighten sense of hearing  can be engaged by the acoustic sound system designer; subtle details can be opened up and cultivated for giving the new-focused listener the sense of space, an experience over-shadowed before. The power of the drive train, the smoothness of the ride, become less prominent, and the envelopment into the world of sound becomes greater. The details of the rich timbre of sound will be perceived, not because of a new level of background noise reduction, but by the relieved distraction of driving, and the opportunity it provides for the fine tuning of the rich detail in the acoustics of the sound. The visual world we bring with us as the driver or rider, or that which we have at our disposal in the car, will become a symptom of complacency. The visual cues will become less valuable. It will be the texture of sound layers and direction of sound that will create the dimensions in that world, not the visual cues. The visual cues become limited in the peripheral, but the listening cues do not.

The Consumer Technology Association clearly identifies that, “the auto industry is at the beginning of a tech transformation. Connectivity and autonomy are enabling new mobility services, more predictive, contextualized in-car content and ever-greater automated vehicles… the opportunities for the car in the Internet of Things, are boundless.” Automotive has a prominent role within the Internet of Things. [3]  “By 2020, 75% of cars shipped globally will be built with the necessary hardware to allow people to stream music, look up movie times, be alerted of traffic and weather conditions, and even power driving-assistance services such as self-parking,” BI Intelligence said in a January 2016 report. [4] So, now, the acoustic sound system designer will have all the sources the captain of the car wants and the opportunity to present them in the most subtle and textured way possible without distraction outside of the intended focus of the media of choice.

There is still a long list of technical, safety, and security issues: the lack of evidence-based testing, bad weather conditions, vulnerability to malevolent or prankster intent, “gaming” the self-driving car (to elicit or restrict its behavior for advantage or fun), the need for less privacy and more control over personal data, the need for much, much deeper regulatory involvement and control than exists anywhere today (except possibly in aerospace), the simple fact that accumulating miles of test drives does not assure safety. [5] Yet — in the cross-cut, there is a multi-industry involvement in the emerging business shift in OEM Automotive: The car makers (all of them), the first tier of  component suppliers (electronics, control software for braking and avoidance), the ride-share companies (Zipcar, Uber), the content sellers (Amazon, INRIX, AT&T, et al), the insurance companies, the regulatory agencies (local and federal), the universities (MIT, among others)– the momentum is undeniable, and solutions are being found at a significant pace.

The freedom of space and knowledge in our brains cannot be warranted by any authority except our own. In this tonal and precise temporal landscape, our minds will be given new plains to wander and explore, either on a short commute or the long-distance ride.

JJR Acoustics is there already in that landscape of acoustic sound system design, captivating the automotive listener with deep tonal texture and precise temporal qualities. We achieve this through traditional and advanced sound tuning techniques, but also with the next level of tuning algorithms that the new landscape can exploit even more. We are ready for the higher sense of hearing of future car captains.


[1]  David M. Eagleman (Brain Time), http://www.eagleman.com/scientific-publications
[2] Professor David Heeger (“Perception Lecture Notes: Auditory Pathways and Sound Localization”), http://www.cns.nyu.edu/~david/courses/perception/lecturenotes/localization/localization.html
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