If you can break away from the traditional in-car audio setup, where designers have to place speakers in the dashboard and doors, you could give every person in the car a bespoke sound experience.
That's the thinking behind Clarion's speakerless audio system, which can use almost any material in the car's interior as an emitter.
"Car design is quite limited by all the equipment we needed to have in the past," Sébastien Brame, senior manager of PR and communications at Clarion, tells TechRadar.
"We used to have the car radio, which was in a specific place inside the cockpit on the dashboard, everything was fixed. Similarly, doors were equipped with speakers, and nobody could imagine that the space should be organized differently."
That's particularly true with autonomous vehicles. Cars no longer have to be designed around the driver, so it makes sense to democratize in-car audio and give everyone an equally good experience.
The absence of speakers also makes non-traditional interior designs more practical. If you want to create a pod with passengers sitting around a central table, for example, the ability to emit sound from walls and head restraints is a great advantage.
"We are moving to cars which are much more oriented to autonomous driving, which means that we can have the seat placed differently, [with your] face to the road, or back to the road, or the side," says Brame.
"Everything is moving, so this gives additional space and additional freedom to the design. To me, it’s really one big step ahead that is given to the car manufacturer to imagine new solutions and new services."
How it works
The system receives a signal from the car's stereo, and the dashboard itself serves as the diaphragm of a speaker, vibrating to produce sound.
Meanwhile, the system behind the rear-view mirror directs air towards the windscreen, effectively creating a virtual subwoofer.
"A speaker is nothing else than something which is moving at a high frequency, and the frequency makes the noise," Brame explains.
"What was interesting to consider is if the basic physics will be applied differently, considering that nearly any material can [vibrate], and in the end, because of contact with the air, become sound.
"The only difficulty was to control and master this – the way those different materials can [move and shake], so that we can build a new era of speakers."
Not all materials vibrate in the same way, so it's necessary for Clarion's engineers to have a full understanding of how the car is made, and which materials it uses.
Once it has that information, setup is surprisingly simple, and can be fitted by a subcontractor. Brame notes that the speakerless sound also requires fewer wires than a conventional speaker system, making it less hassle to install.
The next wave
Clarion's speakerless sound is currently still at the prototyping stage, but Brame says reception from industry experts has been positive after demonstrations at shows in Toyko and Las Vegas.
"First, they were very polite, nothing more, but when they tried it [...] they were quite amazed by the quality of the sound, which was completely above what they were expecting," he says.
"Then, they could understand and imagine how it could be personalized, because we have sound coming from the whole car, including the headrests, we can create the optimum sound quality for each passenger. Not just one sound, but four sounds. It provides something new, definitely."
Clarion can't give any more details of when we'll see the system in production cars, but expects the kits to be ready for manufacturers in the coming months.
Many automakers, including Audi and BMW, expect in-car entertainment to be increasingly important when we no longer have to worry about keeping our hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
An audio system that breaks away from the traditional driver-focused setup could be the perfect solution.