Sony, Elektrobit reimagine in-cabin user experience

Industry

Short of Apple’s secretive foray into automated and electric vehicles, perhaps the most interesting ongoing mystery in the automotive industry revolves around Sony Group Corp. and its Vision-S prototype.

The Japanese entertainment and consumer electronics behemoth dropped the surprise of CES in January 2020, unveiling an all- electric sedan that made public its ambitions in the automotive space. But more than a year and a half later, exactly what Sony intends to do with the Vision-S remains unclear.

Izumi Kawanishi, an executive vice president at Sony, remains tight-lipped on specific plans for the vehicle. He chuckles at attempts to unearth fresh insights.

“We don’t have a concrete plan at this time because our current phase is a research and development phase,” he told Automotive News. “We have to investigate what is our purpose in contributing to mobility service. That is our basic idea, and we have to continue the R&D phase.”

Of course , the notion of a current phase implies there’s one that follows. Along those lines, Sony has been test driving the Vision-S on public roads throughout Germany this year. Tests continue as the company validates basic safety functions.

Beyond safety, the company that invented the Walkman, owns several record labels and pioneered PlayStation is squarely focused on entertainment in what it envisions as a living room on wheels. Kawanishi brings a practical perspective. He says autonomous vehicles won’t allow drivers to get too comfortable for many years, but the company is thinking of both that long game and a present day in which passengers can partake in entertainment offerings.

“We have a lot of content — movies, music and gaming — and we have to utilize that content and technology in the vehicle,” Kawanishi said. “In order to build such entertainment space in the vehicle, we need to understand the opportunity and build the right cabin system.”

That includes panoramic screens across the dashboard, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and displays that work together with remote PlayStation connections from home devices, enabled by 5G. All of which Sony says will be high on what Kawanishi calls “adaptability,” the prospect of all features being enhanced over time via over-the-air-updates.

Behind the scenes, tying those disparate features and systems together, has been German software supplier Elektrobit. The two companies have been working together to develop and refine the user experience, including the infotainment hardware and software, instrument cluster and voice-assistant integrations.

Kawanishi said Sony was impressed with not just the company’s auto-tech software experience, but its capabilities in using agile development processes.

Further, Elektrobit’s experience in mobile device integration — several of the company’s human-machine interface engineers previously worked at Nokia — made the company stand out when Sony started looking for suppliers in 2018.

“Those things were very important for Sony because future mobility has to evolve by software, and they had this unique skill set,” he said.

The collaboration with Sony has allowed Elektrobit to put into practice and showcase the advantages of agile development, a set of philosophies and practices that focus on cross-functional collaboration, flexibility and iterative improvements.

“Everyone talks about how you can master complexity if you are really agile,” said Christian Reinhard, chief technology officer and managing director at Elektrobit. “It really allows you to go one level deeper. You make iterations of iterations and then look at the result. Then you can say, ‘OK, what’s the next important thing?’ Everyone tries to do it. With Sony, it’s really in place. That’s the most exciting thing. Maybe it’s a little nerdy, but it’s exciting for me.”

For Elektrobit, an independent subsidiary of Continental, the ongoing work with Sony allows the company to do more than offer its embedded and connected software expertise; it has allowed Elektrobit to evolve into a systems integrator.

The company’s Cockpit Systems Solutions product, for example, derives from its work with Sony. Other automakers are now working with those products, though the company is not disclosing other partners.

“In the past, we’re used to implementing smaller pieces,” Reinhard said. “This is pretty new for Elektrobit to be in this integrator role.”

For end consumers less interested in the behind-the-scenes machinations, Elektrobit’s work on the Vision-S has allowed further focus on creating a better user experience in the cabin. Participating in that, Reinhard says, has been fascinating. Sony brings an entirely different approach from that of traditional automotive companies.

“What’s really special about them is they always start with their user-centric approach,” he said. “Everyone else in the automotive industry starts with, ‘I want to stream a movie in the car.’ They’re one step earlier in with their thinking. They say, ‘I want to entertain in the car.’ ”

When might real-life consumers be entertained? Sony has an ongoing partnership with Magna Steyr, another supplier known for, among other things, its complete-vehicle assembly expertise. But Kawanishi reiterated Sony’s stance that there are no plans to mass-produce the Vision-S.

More details will be forthcoming, he says, at the upcoming CES.

Perhaps another surprise awaits.

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