Rashmi Rao

Rashmi Rao

Harman used the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week to showcase its expertise and latest innovations in connected car, audio and connected services technologies. The company says it is expanding the traditional measures of MPGs or RPMs to deliver what consumers today demand, namely Experiences Per Mile (EPM). Connected, personalised and adaptable experiences driven by technology, not horsepower, is the main differentiator of new vehicles, says the supplier. It further believes it is "democratising vehicle experiences" through solutions that enable smarter interactions, improve safety and security, and help automakers seamlessly scale offerings across car segments. To find out how, we met with Rashmi Rao, Senior Director of Global Engineering, Advanced Product Development, User Experience, Connected Car, Harman.

Some of the most important in-vehicle technologies today are the instrument cluster and infotainment display, but too often these are designed to function in a silo. For the consumer, this can make the driving experience seem disjointed and lead to a feeling of information overload. All of which can give a sense of discomfort and mistrust around connected car technology.

In addressing this, Harman has reimagined its Digital Cockpit offerings while ensuring they are scalable for a range of entry-level and premium vehicles. In an economical application, its Digital Cockpit – showcased at this year's CES - simplifies vehicle display layouts to present both critical and ancillary information in an intuitive and cohesive layout. Capable of showing advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) feature information, turn-by-turn navigation, multi-media player information and feature menus, the entry-level Digital Cockpit can also seamlessly integrate with a user's smartphone to bridge multiple personal assistants (such as Google, Alexa and Samsung's Bixby) while adding Harman-specific driver related skills into all the clouds in an agnostic way.

At the other end of the spectrum, the supplier's Premium Digital Cockpit and Compute Platform with integrated Android cartridge is an end-to-end package that integrates a vehicle's cluster, infotainment and safety features. It blends QLED and OLED display technologies for optimal colour gamut regardless of the time of day. The solution also features facial recognition for driver monitoring using Harman's cabin monitoring system. Both variants can work seamlessly with the company's suite of sensor technology.

Indeed, this year's CES confirms the notion that tomorrow's cars will incorporate a virtual dashboard with curved screens designed using organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. An OLED is an LED where the light is produced by organic molecules. Benefits of using OLEDs for car display include thinner, lighter, more flexible and they work without a backlight.

Rashmi, we understand that you have been inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. Why do you love working in automotive technology?

The thing that really excites me about automotive is we have so many technologies - that are already there for the consumer -  that are finding newer and much more interesting applications in automotive. So, on the one hand, in mobile, the real estate is very limited. With automotive, however, you have a specific space. So you know the boundary conditions. It is very difficult to design something for a home that fits for every home because you don't know the boundary conditions. So for automotive, you have those boundary conditions well defined so you can find more interesting ways to bring the same things alive and in a different way. So that is what really excites me about automotive.

What advice do you have for young women interested in pursuing a tech career?

I would say don't be afraid to disrupt yourself. Because five years ago, I would not have considered automotive. But automotive is not the same place it was five years ago. And so I think that a lot of women look to get experience before they go somewhere. They would want to be qualified before they go and get the role. But I would never have got the role in automotive if I had waited for that.

Your job title is long and interesting. Could you summarise your role in Harman?

Actually, my role has changed starting in November 2018. This is my third role at Harman. I joined to start the North American engineering organisation that was focused on delivery for our North American customers. And then 3.5 years ago, I started the User Experience group.

So you created a new role for yourself?

Yes. So when I started the UX group, it took me quite a bit to even explain it internally why I wanted to name the group as User Experience. But that was made easier when, last year at CES, our CEO in his first interview to CNBC after his keynote said that Harman is all about User Experience. As we look at the automotive space, our customer OEMs are changing how they operate. They are looking at mobility rather than just making vehicles.  So my current role is going across the divisions of Harman and Samsung to bring very specific new business models to automotive.

As the automotive industry shifts toward higher levels of driver autonomy, from your perspective what are the top three opportunities that brings for Harman?

I think that the number one would be connectivity. We are definitely leading in the space with 5G. And autonomous, connected - none of that will happen without 5G. Because with 5G what it really does is democratises data. Today we pay a premium for data. We won't be with 5G anymore. So when you're not paying for data, when you are democratising data, what can we do is infinite. So that is the biggest opportunity: connecting vehicles and bringing unlimited experiences through data. It is really infinite. That is the one number one opportunity.

The second opportunity, only something that Harman is in a very unique position to bring with its audio heritage and connected vehicle heritage. We have a huge presence in two of the largest areas in automotive. Bringing those together, only Harman can do. So that is what we will be looking for more in the future to do is combine our expertise in audio and entertainment.

The third one, for me, is as we look at this shared mobility and different ownership models, it's about personalisation. And for personalisation, there are two elements:  identification and identity management. We have seen IOS, the Cloud and managing the identity. Now, it's also about the identification. So with facial recognition, occupant monitoring and being able to monitor the state is the next big opportunity with Euro NCAP and NCAP 2020.

Do you see more gesture recognition and eye movement to control functions in cars?

So, gesture I think it's very interesting, particularly for automotive. There are two kinds: short-range and long-range. I would say that long-range gestures are not where they should be from a technology perspective because there are a lot of false positives. The short-range, I think, is getting a lot of momentum not just on the display side but from what I would refer to as highly integrated smart surfaces. So not just on digital screens but actual surfaces, such as the dash. That is where gestures are gaining momentum, because they can be course rather than precise.  So you can potentially open a glove box by just a quick short gesture. It means that you do not have to have a plastic knob or lock but can make it seamless piece of plastic along the dash and open it by a gesture.

At events like this, the opportunities for connectivity seem endless. But when you are back in the office considering where to invest to further develop technologies, I guess it's customer-led?

Absolutely. That is one of the number one things that I am doing. I have been fortunate enough where I saw this whole thing happening on mobile when I was working in that area. So, between 2007 and 2012, just because capacitive touch became so popular on mobile phones, people in the industry started looking at multiple ways of doing touch on mobile phones. For example, there were people who are looking at sonic waves and acoustic waves for touch on mobile phones. It was like a zoo. It was like 'we can do all of these things.' But there came a time where only one or two things became successful. And there was a very specific reason because they added value, they gave something back to the end user. So capacitive touch became so popular because you could continue to make the phone antenna good – which was the direction that mobile phones went - but anything that would add to the thickness of the device did not go anywhere. So, surface acoustic wave would add a big bezel so that did not go anywhere. It just became an exciting academic exercise.

We have a very strong alignment and speak with a lot of with our customers. They have a lot of insight. And we have a big base of customers. Also, one of the things I think that a lot of people miss is really thinking about who are the people we are building this for in 2025? This is not you and me. It is this other crop of people who are about 10 years old now who will be in these vehicles, whether they own it or subscribe to it. And they think of the world very differently. So being able to really empathise and pay attention to the upcoming trends is very important.

If you look at the generation that are 10 years behind us, they don't even buy clothes, they subscribe to clothes and make up. It is all about subscription. But being able make sure that it is a component in the roadmap that you develop is critical.  As tech people, we can get caught up with technology but paying attention to what our customers are looking at while paying attention to who it is that we ultimately building this for is crucial.

How big will in-car displays become?

It depends. There are regional preferences. The trends that I'm seeing right now is China, Asia prefer very large screens. So the Bytons of this world and others like huge screens. And then there are others like Tesla that want to put one screen in a car that does everything. So it has very regional preferences. What we should expect is definitely more focus on all the seats of the car, not just the driver seat. So, I think that will definitely be a key trend. So more displays rather than just bigger displays in the car. Also, particularly as we move to autonomous, being able to augment the reality. And that is why augmented reality is critical. Because you are now in a robo-car and you have to trust this car is doing what you want it to do. So is it able to detect what the things that I am also seeing?  So for that, augmenting the reality around you through this vehicle will become very important. So I do believe that there will be a strong trend towards augmented reality.

What is your vision of rear seat entertainment?

I think there will be specific cars like people carriers where the important seats are in the back. We have seen this trend in the past where executives and premium cars in Asia, the owner is typically sitting in the back, like a Rolls Royce.  So I think that kind of philosophy is going to extend. And I wouldn't even call it a rear seat but occupant seat because that is becoming more and more important. So there will be a fleet of cars that will serve that purpose for which the screens in the back will become critical.

To what extent can we expect to see more curved OLED and dual screens in the car cockpits?

I definitely think so because it is the aesthetic. More than the ergonomics, it is more driven in aesthetic in order to differentiate.

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