AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Advances in technology and changes in consumer tastes have caused antennas, eight-tracks, cassette decks and CD players to disappear from their once-familiar places in our cars and trucks.
The next thing to go might be the speakers.
But thumping bass, rich midrange and soaring highs will still be there. They'll just be coming from the car itself.
Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car's interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now.
The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-pillars — the posts between the windshield and the doors — become your tweeters, said Dominik Haefele, leader of the team that developed the technology.
The result is something like an enhanced version of surround sound. "It's a 3-D immersive sound, and you're experiencing the music in a very different way," Haefele said. "You're in the sound. You feel it all around you, like you're adding another dimension to it."
The key components are transducers — small devices that use a magnet wrapped in a copper coil to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Run current through the wires, and the transducer vibrates. Continental has figured out a way to implant transducers in a car's interior and use them to turn interior panels into speakers.
On a recent afternoon at Continental's research lab north of Detroit, Haefele slid behind the wheel of a black Mercedes-Benz C-Class equipped with the system. He cranked up "Oh Yeah," the funky 1985 hit made famous in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and the song's distinctive bass throbbed from all directions.
"You can't tell where it's coming from," Haefele shouted.
Switching to Marvin Gaye's classic "Heard It Through the Grapevine," he pointed to the A-pillars. Tambourine and guitar riffs rang out crisply as Gaye crooned about the anguish of his betrayal.
The system, which Continental calls Ac2ate Sound, should begin appearing in cars by 2021, Haefele said. He declined to name the carmakers that will offer it, although Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all big customers and frequent adopters of Continental's technology.
James Grace, a senior director at Cox Automotive who previously worked in automotive interiors, said the biggest challenge for developing speakerless audio systems would be eliminating the vibrations, hums and rattles that so often emanate from interior parts and properly integrating the sound-producing parts with the rest of the car.
"Interior parts are not typically made to produce high-quality audio," he said, but added that it was a "pretty clever idea."