From their conception to the 1950’s, automobiles were strictly pieces of analog machinery. It seemed they were able to connect people physically by transporting them from place to place, but failed to connect with them at an emotional level. But as the automobile matured, so did its ability to connect with its drivers and passengers. In 1953, HARMAN Becker introduced the car radio, allowing occupants to hear music while they drove.

Quickly, automobiles earned their place in culture, starring in rock songs and movies. Now, “being handed the aux cord” is a punchline in memes, and high tech audio systems are key in the car buying process.

Here, we walk through how HARMAN took car audio from Becker and Bullitt to Mark Levinson and beyond.

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the iconic words, “Baby you can drive my car,” they didn’t know today’s automobile and transportation revolution would be conceived partly because of music. When they released “Drive My Car” in 1965, car audio systems were mainly AM radios, with a receiver available as an option on select vehicles. Soon, the 8-track system gained popularity and traction in the market, showing up in more vehicles and allowing people to bring their own music into the car.

In sequence, new music technology replaced the old, and HARMAN brands led this trend: in 1975, the first car cassette radio was launched – and the perfect driving mix was born. JBL’s automotive debut came in 1984, with the brand’s badges adorning the stereo system on that model year’s Lincoln Town Car. HARMAN brands got the honor of being one of the only OEM suppliers with branded equipment in the vehicle, and audiophiles were relieved of having to turn to the aftermarket for bass and high volume clarity that typical systems could not offer. CD players soon followed, and high end sound systems became a selling point in luxury cars. Stronger than ever was the relationship between driving, and rocking out to your favorite music.

The 2000’s marked the dawn of the iPod giving people instant access to thousands of songs and infinite playlist possibilities. The auto industry responded, building interfaces that accommodated digital media players. Cars got auxiliary inputs, so users could plug in and listen to their own music from their preferred devices.

HARMAN engineers were now involved in the planning phase of vehicle development, rather than simply being given small bores to affix speakers to. HARMAN led innovations that married car audio systems with the rest of the dashboard - and interior automotive designers rejoiced, saved from  painful constraints and compromises that cassette and CD players presented. Integrating the receiver and the rest of the dashboard controls and expanding the universe of “infotainment” possibilities, HARMAN instantly saw incredible opportunities to reimagine the cockpit.

Digital Cockpit
HARMAN's Digital Cockpit features an integrated infotainment system
old audio systems
Older systems were separate and components were inserted in to a cavity in the dashboard

Today, HARMAN focuses on using software to help enhance the user experience in the vehicle by reducing unwanted noise, and augmenting the quality of desired sound. HARMAN’s HALOsonic Noise Management Solutions mitigates road noise by using accelerometers to identify road vibrations before they reach the cabin, and cancels out the unwanted road noise using the speakers. More software driven solutions, like Individual Sound Zones introduce the luxury of choice, allowing each person in the car to listen to their own audio while minimizing impact on other passengers. Virtual Venues can even transport passengers to their favorite concert halls and acoustic venues.

Road and wind noise are objectively irritating, but not all noise is bad noise. As cars modernized, engine roars got quieter. Many drivers long for the ‘vroom’ that was missing because of more safety equipment like airbags and crumple zones mean a more isolated cabin. Smaller engines hushed by turbochargers offered better efficiency but also dampen engine notes. Automakers knew their target cabin sound for some cars included exhaust and engine noise—the sounds that makes a sports car so special, and HARMAN’s HALOsonic Internal Electronic Sound Synthesis (iESS) technology is there to support. HALOsonic External Electronic Sound Synthesis (eESS) works the same way, but it generates sound outside the car so consumers can hear otherwise silent electric motors.

Just as MP3 files replaced CDs and tapes, the 2010s ushered in another era of change. Music libraries became cloud based, and apps like Pandora and Spotify rose in popularity. But streamed music has a had a drawback: services utilize limited bandwidth so audio files are compressed. Again the auto industry reacted. Lexus, Toyota, and more automakers turned to HARMAN solutions like Clari-Fi technology. HARMAN knows compressed music means poorer sound quality, and Clari-Fi helps get back what was lost in compression—clear, full-bodied sound on par with the original recording so the consumer don’t have to compromise.

Today, 50 million total cars and 80% of luxury cars are equipped with HARMAN systems. The HARMAN portfolio includes 10 automotive-audio brands, allowing for unique solutions and the right brand fit for OEM customers ranging from Toyota to Ferrari. Highly advanced solutions, like 360-degree view cameras, HARMAN Ignite, telematics data, and the Digital Cockpit can trace their roots back to the first car radios. Now with constantly evolving and improving sound systems, audio solutions, and acoustical technologies, next generation automobiles are offering even greater entertainment, productivity and  convenience. HARMAN’s innovations that support these new focuses will grow in importance as autonomy looms.