Following its US$8bn buy-out by Samsung, will Harman’s push for connected car leadership be pushed aside? Don’t bet on it, Harman’s Phil Eyler tells Freddie Holmes
Harman may have made its name as a high quality audio company, but with Samsung as a parent supplier it is set to ramp up developments in automated, connected and secured cars, homes and devices.
Over the last few years, Harman has been busy acquiring companies it believes can support its ambitions to become a leading player in the car of the future. Symphony Teleca, Red Bend and TowerSec were all brought into the fold with the aim of positioning the company in key verticals of Cloud-based analytics, cyber security and over-the-air updates. Then in November, despite the apparent effort to become a key player in its own right, Harman announced that it would be acquired by Samsung for US$8bn. Samsung stated that Harman would remain a standalone subsidiary led by existing management, but there are question marks on whether it will be able to retain the same degree of autonomy under its new parent. Will Samsung’s governance take away some of Harman’s new-found independence?
Harman’s Phil Eyler, who spearheads the connected car division, thinks not, and suggests the supplier will act as the ‘automotive funnel’ within the Samsung organisation. “If anything, this is going to create more momentum in terms of Harman expanding its reach in the connected and autonomous car space,” he affirms. “Will Harman get swept up? No, quite the opposite, and we’re pretty excited.”
There are clear synergies that can be had from the deal, such as in high quality displays, 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence, but also less obvious sectors such as autonomous driving and smart homes. Megatrends sat down with Eyler during an invitation-only event running alongside the 2017 CES in Las Vegas to see where the company is heading under new ownership.
From connected car to connected life
Behind closed doors at the Sin City event, Harman presented its view for the car of the future. What’s interesting is that the car of the future is apparently about more than just the vehicle itself. Amongst a variety of connected wearables and audio gear, a ‘smart home’ and shared mobility concept car gave a clear indication of the company’s direction.
As the connected car continues to mature, the automotive industry is looking at how its technology can be used to benefit life outside of the cockpit. Recent partnerships between companies such as Amazon and Ford, for example, have added further evidence that cars will not only interact with other road users, but with the home, workplace and other connected infrastructure. “We are absolutely thinking about this as an Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, connecting the home, the car and the office,” explains Eyler.
To this end, Harman has been working closely with long-term partner and concept car developer Rinspeed. “We’ve created an autonomous shared mobility vehicle demonstrator that shows our re-imagination of what the future connected car will look like. This shared autonomous mobility ecosystem is tightly integrated into a person’s life, not just into the car,” says Eyler.
In practice, a consumer could order such a vehicle to come to the house through voice recognition technology in a Harman smart speaker. Because the consumer has a personal profile, the car arrives automatically configured to that person’s preferences. The same process could occur in a workplace environment, something of particular interest to Eyler. “We think the office is a huge piece of this conversation. As cars become more autonomous, the opportunity to become more productive in the car becomes increasingly important,” he explains. “This car has embedded features that combine with your work life as well.”
New human-machine interface (HMI) technologies will be relevant not just for fully autonomous cars, but also for semi-autonomous cars with the transition away from the classic style of driving
In January 2016, Harman partnered with Microsoft to introduce Office productivity software to the car. At the 2017 CES, this was demonstrated with the ability to join conference calls and update work calendars directly from the car, for example.
With the car connected to the home, the Cloud and various other devices, the ability to protect against nefarious cyber hackers becomes ever more important. As any cyber security company will point out, whenever an additional component is connected to the Internet, a new attack surface is created.
A connected life “definitely creates a huge risk,” agrees Eyler. “This is why our first step in the connected car journey was to build a foundation and a cyber security platform to go with it.” Despite heightened risk, he observes that the industry is not moving quickly enough to ensure that consumers are not in danger of losing personal data or control of the steering wheel at the hands of remote criminals.
“It’s been interesting because last year there was real concern about cyber security in vehicles, but that has waned slightly,” he says. “I still think the industry needs to move faster, and we’ve been pretty clear about that. This is why we’ve been investing so heavily in this area.”
Interest in cyber security varies from company to company, and there are many players that are actively pushing for secure solutions. The formation of the Auto-ISAC – the automotive industry’s answer to a dedicated cyber security body – was a positive step, Eyler says. The launch of a comprehensive best practices document in July 2016 was another. However, “there are certainly some players that are maybe not reacting fast enough,” he admits. “Like anything, it’s a big change. Organisations, priorities and architectures have to change. In our space, that sometimes doesn’t happen as fast as we would like it to.”
In May 2016, a Model S driver died whilst using Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system, sparking outcry among various stakeholders and third-party watchdogs. Some even called for Autopilot to be banned until proven ‘safe’, and put autonomous driving under the regulatory spotlight. Would a cyber hack resulting in similar outcry act as a catalyst for improvements to security? “I hope it doesn’t happen, but it certainly would,” muses Eyler.
The handover to autonomous driving
Harman is now a company with an ancestry in audio systems, owned by an electronics giant – not the most obvious player in the driverless car space. However, Eyler believes the company is well positioned, particularly when it comes to the user experience. “This is one area we’re focussing on that maybe hasn’t yet been as prevalent in the conversation around autonomy,” he says. “New human-machine interface (HMI) technologies will be relevant not just for fully autonomous cars, but also for semi-autonomous cars with the transition away from the classic style of driving.”
The handover period – from autonomous mode to manual driving – is a key topic of interest here. It is unclear how cars with the option to drive in fully autonomous mode will transition control to and from the human driver. Transfer control back to the driver too early, and he or she may not be ready. Transfer control too late, and the car may not be able to avoid a dangerous road situation. Both instances could result in a crash.
Automotive interior supplier Faurecia conducted research in 2015 to this end, and found that five to eight seconds was a ‘good target window’ to transfer control back to the driver. An expert from Yanfeng Automotive Interiors (YFAI) also suggests that around ten seconds would be the best bet. Volvo opts for a different approach, suggesting that if the car is in fully autonomous mode, the driver should not be expected to retake control at short notice. Instead, the car will revert to a safety mode and find an ‘appropriate’ (i.e. safe) spot to pull over. In December 2016, a letter published by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that GM’s Super Cruise semi-autonomous drive technology would stop the vehicle, after issuing alerts, if the driver with hands away from the steering wheel for an extended period were deemed inattentive.
Harman shares a similar view in this sense, recognising that drivers may not be ready to regain control and that it is likely dangerous to assume otherwise.
The Rinspeed concept car shown at CES 2017 requires a three-point checklist before control can be returned to the human driver. Hands must be on the wheel, and can be detected through sensors. Eyes must be on the road, and can be confirmed via camera-based eye-gaze tracking. The third part is a unique Harman technology, which can track changes to the pupil itself. “Our technology correlates the amount of pupil dilation to cognitive load, so it makes sure that your concentration is on the road ahead,” explains Eyler. “We recognise that the handover is probably one of the biggest concerns for OEMs.”
Eyler admits that while this is not the only approach the industry could follow for vehicle autonomy, he believes it is beneficial to continue investigating possible routes via concepts and prototyping. After all, it is not only Harman that wants to understand how cars and drivers will be affected by automated and connected technologies in future, but its peers, customers and employees. As an electronics behemoth sitting in an industry that places great importance on software, it will be interesting to see how Samsung’s Harman performs.
This article appeared in the Q1 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.