System complexity, rising consumer expectations and escalating costs are forcing a rethink of car audio. New, highly-integrated software-based approaches such as BlackBerry's QNX Acoustics Management Platform 3.0 offers a 'sound' solution to these challenges.
Leading automakers understand that the perception of sound - both conscious and unconscious - plays a key role in the way consumers assess the safety, reliability and quality of their cars. Some have even made the acoustic experience a centerpiece of their own brands.
For automakers, meeting ever-escalating demands for acoustic quality while simultaneously adding new features and capabilities to their cars has meant increased complexity and cost. This cost pressure is in addition to the challenges they face with a sped-up product development cycle, varying consumer demands across multiple geographies, and a need to offer car buyers premium audio options - still a big driver of profits.
Modern cars contain a whole host of technologies, design rules and materials all geared towards shaping and sculpting the sonic experience, but historically if an automaker wanted to add a new acoustic feature, they were forced to install a separate and dedicated electronic control unit (ECU) to manage that particular feature. As a result, the modern car now has countless interconnected ECUs - made by different suppliers - that often share microphones or loudspeakers all the while coexisting in the shared acoustic space of the vehicle cabin - and thus far, doing so harmoniously.
This approach has worked well up until now, but as the number of features has increased, the situation has reached a breaking point. At the same time, Moore's Law continues to deliver more and more computing power per dollar than ever before - which allows us to look with fresh eyes (and ears) at the problem. Now, we can realistically look at car audio and acoustics holistically - and as a software problem to be solved.
The Car Audio Quartet
The acoustic technologies in a modern car can be categorized into four broad domains:
1. Speech and Voice
2. Powertrain Sounds, Noise and Warnings
3. Chimes, Alerts and Interface Sounds
4. Music, Apps and Media
Let's examine each to gain a better understanding of how automakers can go about designing the best in-car sound experience for their customers.
Speech and Voice: Talking in (and to) your car
Despite the explosive growth of smart speakers and smartphones with speech-operated digital assistants, the car was the first place where speech recognition software was launched in hopes of gaining mass adoption by the general public. Much to the chagrin of the automakers, these early iterations never really quite took off as speech recognition engines had to run offline in relatively limited embedded computing platforms, with the end result being limited performance and vocabulary. Since then, the landscape has changed and automakers are charged with meeting the expectations of consumers who have come to expect speech recognition to work just as well in their expensive new car as it does in their $100 smart speaker. Full internet connectivity - either direct to the car - or via ubiquitous smartphones - means that automakers now have a shot at fulfilling the promise of the 'speech-enabled' car by leveraging cloud-based speech services.
However, despite technology's promise, challenges remain, as the car is quite different acoustically to the average home. For one thing, homes don't usually drive down the highway at 60 miles an hour - which tends to make the car a very noisy environment. In addition to speaking voice commands to their car or smartphone, people need to be able to hold a comfortable conversation within the car as well as make and receive phone calls from their cars.
(Don't) Twist and Shout: Enabling comfortable conversations within the car no matter how fast and noisy it is
When travelling at high speed the car can be a noisy environment - making it hard to have a comfortable conversation with other occupants. Larger, three-row SUVs present an even bigger problem as people in the third row often can't hear the first row at all when out on the highway. This situation can become dangerous if the driver feels they need to 'twist and shout' to be heard in the back of the car. In cars that feature a handsfree phone system there is a microphone that can pick-up the voice of the driver, which can be amplified and relayed to the speakers in the back; a core principle of In-Car Communication (ICC) technology.
Adding to the cacophony of sounds within the cabin that drivers and passengers have to contend with are the various artificially manufactured noises that OEMs have introduced. Indeed, modern engines don't sound like they used to and as a result, automakers have been artificially enhancing the sound of the engine for well over a decade by creating synthetic sounds that are played over the vehicle speaker system. Paradoxically, the quietness of electric vehicles has presented a new challenge to forward thinking automakers who have had to amp the external noise they produce so as to warn pedestrians and cyclists that their vehicles are approaching. Finally, in search of squeezing ever-improved fuel economy from the venerable internal-combustion engine, automakers have introduced technologies such as cylinder deactivation which can create negative side-effects such as low-frequency 'boom' noise that can be countered using active noise control (ANC) technology - essentially 'anti-noise' signals played over the speaker system.
Human-Machine Interface: Chimes and Alerts
Chimes or alerts are signals played into the cabin to alert the driver of an impending threat or vehicle condition. The increasing adoption of ADAS and autonomous driving features are motivating automakers to redesign their chimes and safety alerts to provide more meaningful audible information to the driver. For example, a chime could be spatialized from a particular speaker based on the detected location of a pedestrian, a chime may increase in level as the noise in the cabin increases to avoid being masked by road noise, or for parking assistance a chime may increase in pitch as the distance to an obstruction decreases. Chimes may be prioritized over other audio streams (e.g. duck music when an alert is played), and in some systems, the safety of the chime generator may be improved by using an in-cabin microphone to monitor whether an alert is likely to be audible to the driver.
Audio and Loudspeaker Management
One of the most frequent and demanding uses of a vehicle's audio system is infotainment. With the ever-increasing number of connected devices and interfaces in the vehicle, infotainment media sources are varied and may include digital and FM/AM radio, on-board media, Bluetooth, USB, AUX input, DVD, streaming applications, satellite radio, etc. While managing the outputs of all this is no small task the reality is that audio is still a big driver of profits in the automotive market and OEMs want to be able to offer a range of options for customers including base-, mid- and of course high-level audio systems to suit differing demographics. Unfortunately providing this via legacy multi-ECU architecture built from disparate suppliers is not only not scalable but also massively costly with each audio option package often having to be engineered from scratch. In addition, new high-resolution audio formats such as Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) enable music fans to enjoy the same quality as that experienced in the recording studio but present their own challenges within the in-car environment. With some cars kitted out with upwards of 30 speakers, ensuring high quality is no small task - unless a new approach is taken.
Introducing the QNX Acoustics Management Platform 3.0
The QNX Acoustics Management Platform (AMP) 3.0 [MC1] enables automakers to design and manage the total sonic experience in cars for drivers and passengers alike, while reducing system costs and complexity.
QNX AMP 3.0 comes pre-configured with a core set of audio and acoustic functionality that meets the requirements of today's most advanced system designs and with the extensibility and flexibility to meet the challenges of the future.
All features of QNX AMP 3.0 are tuned and configured via QNX's industry-leading tuning tool, LiveAMP. LiveAMP 3.0 provides a complete overview of microphones, real-time vehicle data streams, loudspeakers, and more to enable the acoustic experience of the vehicle to be defined and controlled in one place.
QNX also offers services ranging from basic support and training to complete acoustic tuning, testing and compliance certification against ITU and industry standards - with the benefit of decades of experience with hundreds of OEM production programs.
Leveraging the power of the QNX Neutrino Realtime Operating System, QNX AMP 3.0 is built on a modular, low-latency audio architecture that offers real-time, high-performance signal processing on general-purpose application processors - with unprecedented time resolution of as low as one millisecond. Automakers no longer need to rely on proprietary digital signal processing (DSP) cores or specialized external hardware to implement compute-intensive acoustic signal processing applications.
QNX AMP 3.0 can also be implemented in a virtualized environment using the market-leading QNX Hypervisor 2.0. This allows seamless integration with Linux / Android infotainment guest OSes with full support for all audio functionality.
The QNX Acoustics Management Platform 3.0 is a modular and flexible system allowing automakers to activate just the features they need across their product line or for each option package as required.
Each of the QNX AMP 3.0 modules are also available as stand-alone signal processing libraries that can be ported to a wide range of CPUs/DSPs and operating systems where the QNX Neutrino OS or QNX Hypervisor is not available.
Interested in learning more? Come see a live demo of QNX AMP 3.0 at our booth (#XXX) at the Audio Engineering Society Automotive Conference in Germany, Sept 11-13.
For more information on BlackBerry products and services for the automotive industry, please visit BlackBerry.com