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Harman’s Connected Car of the Future Might Foretell the End of Car Ownership

It won’t happen overnight, but shared autonomous cars might be where we’re headed.

Wondering why Samsung decided to buy Harman for $8 billion? Here’s why. After demonstrating their LIVS (Life-enhancing Intelligent Vehicle Solution) connected car platform at CES last year, Harman showed off an improved demo with a new Rinspeed prototype at this year’s show, and it’s becoming clear that Harman has an ambitious vision of the future of cars.

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Last year, Harman gave us a look at features like integrated Skype calls and ADAS — advanced driver assistance systems, or the sort of semi-autonomous safety features you see in a lot of cars now (automatic braking if the car senses an imminent collision with a car in front of you, for example). This year, Harman gave us a look at their vision for LIVS five to ten years from now, when self-driving cars might just be the norm.

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On the dash of the new Rinspeed Oasis concept car, there’s a row of displays sitting atop a long soundbar with Harman speakers. Nearly all of the demo (the car stayed in one place, with a program showcasing LIVS features running during the simulation of a driving route) showed what drivers will be able to do in self-driving cars using Harman’s technology. The driver and front passenger can use their sides of the displays independently for anything from music to movies to social media, all controlled by gestures over a controller on the armrest. Navigation works as usual, but Harman’s cloud services can remember if you’ve shown interest in a restaurant nearby, and will ask if you want to go there. If you’re busy, the car can put a trip to that restaurant on the schedule for later in the day.

There were plenty of intriguing safety features, too. The car can be switched from autonomous to manual mode, but the change won’t be immediate. Using sensors like eye trackers, the car will use a three-step process to ensure that both hands are on the wheel and that the driver’s eyes are focused on the road. If the driver takes control, the car will block calls and texts until the driver isn’t under as much cognitive load (say, at a red light), and will then notify the driver of missed calls or messages.

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Harman also showed what v2i connectivity will make possible. v2i, or vehicle-to-infrastructure, refers to cars communicating with smart city systems to pull in useful information. Eventually, cities will be filled with sensors that can detect cars to create a better traffic map, allowing the connected car to adjust its route according to traffic on the fly — the driver won’t need to do anything. Better yet, smart cities could eventually detect the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists — if one of them is approaching an intersection, the car will get that information and know to wait before they even enter your line of sight. Oh, and even cooler? That information will be projected onto the windshield in the form of a red outline.

One of the underlying assumptions of Harman’s LIVS is that we might be at the beginning of the end of the era of car ownership. Almost everything in LIVS is tied to a driver’s unique profile, which drivers and passengers load up when they enter the car. Conceptually, that means it doesn’t matter what car you get into — as long as it’s running Harman’s LIVS, you can log in and grab all of your personalized settings from Harman’s cloud services. Imagine Zipcar, if those cars had tons of connected tech inside — that’s where Harman is headed.

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The most impressive part of the demo was that just about everything was handled by Harman. The display’s weren’t theirs (unsurprisingly, we heard they came courtesy of Samsung), but everything from the cloud services to the connectivity software to the user interface running in the car was built by Harman. They control every part of the car, which means they can also better secure it — early on during CES, Harman ran a live hack of their car to show off how they can shut down or mitigate hacking attempts.

Of course, Harman has some company. Automotive Grade Linux is a project that’s out to create an open source connected car platform that automakers can use to build their own unique interfaces, instead of the norm of every car company building their own system. AGL has a big presence among Japanese automakers, and just scored a big win in Europe by partnering with Daimler. Then, there’s the question of how Apple, Google, and Tesla will fit in. So far, Harman has been scoring deals with high-end partners like Maserati and Porsche — it remains to be seen how Harman will approach the car sharing applications of their tech, because Maseratis and Porsches aren’t exactly made to be shared. Whatever happens, it’s great news for us — heated competition has rarely been a bad thing for consumers.