While much about post-Covid-19 life remains unclear, surveys from IBM and others clearly show that Americans will be less trustful of ride-hailing services and public transit, and more inclined to see their cars as safe sanctuaries. That phenomenon has already brought back the Sunday drive—with windows rolled up.
Automakers were already enhancing the driving experience—particularly in luxury cars—with seats that heated, cooled, and massaged passengers, and even (a Mercedes innovation) featured curated scents.
But the coronavirus and a wave of new technology are accelerating the trend.
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid I’m testing this week has a novel feature—Sounds of Nature. Instead of listening to sports on satellite radio, music from your phone or Spotify, drivers can dial in “lively forest,” “open-air café,” “calm sea waves,” “rainy day,” “warm fireplace” or “snowy village.”
Sounds of Nature, developed by Hyundai in Korea, is part of the Limited package that includes Bose premium audio and a 12.3-inch touchscreen, which lets you see visualizations of the audio environment selected. I had varied reactions to the choices—the open-air café was crowded, and since I don’t particularly care for noisy restaurants, it wasn’t for me. Of course, with Covid worries, it’s better to listen to that environment to actually be in it.
The sea waves, rainy day, and warm fireplace were quite pleasing, however, similar to the environmental sounds people use to fight insomnia. The snowy village featured crunching footsteps, reminding me of January in Maine.
Chris Ludwig is a vice president of the Early Pursuit and Innovation Concepts (EPIC) team at Harman , the premium audio company that includes such brands as Bang & Olufsen, Bowers and Wilkins , JBL, Harman Kardon, and Mark Levinson . He says his team’s goal was to “surprise and delight people,” and that includes the NatureScapes technology Harman showed at the Consumer Electronics Show this year.
The EPIC squad partnered with the National Park Foundation and gathered sounds for a multi-channel experience in such locations as Yosemite Falls in California’s Sierra Nevadas, Olympic Park in Washington, the Dry Tortugas in Florida, and Mammoth Dome in Kentucky.
With NatureScapes, drivers can have the sounds blended in with another source, such as music or sports. So the game on the beach, or a concert in the rain.
New interior technologies will use technology to cancel unwanted sounds, like low-frequency drones. Harman’s noise-cancellation is available on the new Genesis GV80 luxury SUV, on sale this summer. Also discussed at CES was voice-sensing volume fade, which automatically adjusts infotainment so that conversations can be heard.
Another important way to give car owners a secure feeling is to guarantee them clean air and a bacteria-free environment. Mercedes and Volvo high-end models offer purifiers or fragrance emitters. In Asia, where pollution is a serious issue, air-quality monitors and filters are a selling point. Since 2018, Tesla has offered its HEPA air filtration, which it has claimed is far more effective than regular automotive filtration in removing “at least 99.97% of fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen, and mold spores.” Its effectiveness against Covid-19 is not known.