Automakers, BlackBerry’s QNX work on synthetic engine sounds

For car lovers, there is just something about a revving engine that gets the blood moving faster. Now automakers can capitalize on that feeling by teaming with a division of BlackBerry that is developing a way to replicate the sound of yesteryear’s driving experience, even as cars become quieter and more fuel efficient.

TORONTO — For car lovers, there is just something about a revving engine that gets the blood moving faster.

Now automakers can capitalize on that feeling by teaming with a division of BlackBerry that is developing a way to replicate the sound of yesteryear’s driving experience, even as cars become quieter and more fuel efficient.

QNX Software Systems — acquired by BlackBerry (TSX:BB) nearly four years ago — debuted a couple of concept cars on Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

One is a modified Kia Soul hatchback that showcases a new technology called “engine sound enhancement.” In its most basic form, it’s a soundtrack that simulates the engine both inside the car and for people on the outside through speakers.

QNX is also displaying a modified Mercedes CLA45 that has an “infotainment” system built into the dashboard. The technology utilizes speech recognition and supports applications on the Android Jellybean operating system.

QNX sales and marketing vice-president Derek Kuhn said the sound simulator in the Kia is aimed at drivers who want a car that is better for the environment but still maintains a sporty feel. In electric cars, the sound can also help prevent accidents with pedestrians who don’t hear the engine.

The technology is an answer to the requests from vehicle manufacturers who have managed to lighten the weight of their models over the years by removing insulation and other parts that have grown to be unnecessary.

“Unfortunately when you take insulation out … it starts to add strange noises that you’ve never really heard before in cars,” Kuhn said in a phone interview from Vegas.

“Adding a very careful soundtrack to how you develop that emotion within the cabin is important.”

For automakers, it’s crucial to get a vehicle’s sound right, Kuhn said. If a car doesn’t make the right noises, then often drivers will think something is wrong with it.

The challenge is that every automaker wants a different sound, and the purr — or roar — of an engine can be as much an act of branding as it’s an exercise in authenticity.

Kuhn said one manufacturer was very particular when it asked musicians to enter a recording studio.

“They wanted their car to sound like the cross between a certain brand of bass guitar and a snow leopard,” he said.

“Different companies have different opinions. Some of them just want a certain kind of exhaust note.”

The QNX technology in the Mercedes includes an app that operates on HTML5 — one of the programming languages used to create web pages — and allows drivers to control the windows, door locks and car stereo from a key fob.

The car offers a preview of what’s to come in the next five years for the automotive industry.

Manufacturers like Chrysler, Fiat and Honda already use QNX software in vehicles on the roads today, including the company’s echo and noise cancellation technology designed for hands-free smartphones.

In 2013, QNX software was shipped in 11.6 million vehicles around the world, Kuhn said.

Developing new ideas for automakers is a key part of the future of QNX, but the company isn’t without its challengers.

Google threw its name into the mix on Monday with the promise of an Android-based system developed in partnership with Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and graphics processor Nvidia called the Open Automotive Alliance.

Together, the companies aim to make it easier for drivers to connect their Android operated phones to their car’s audio system.

QNX has dedicated its business to tinkering with these intricacies in the world of complex computer software — but the company isn’t just about the automotive industry.

In the health care industry, QNX software is built into the diagnostics of blood analytics systems some defibrillators and X-ray machines. The U.S. military has software developed by the company running in its submarines. And in Las Vegas, security software from QNX is deep inside slot machines.

When BlackBerry purchased QNX in 2010, the developer began designing the smartphone operating system that would become the platform for BlackBerry 10 phones.

BlackBerry was falling behind competitors like Google and Apple who were rapidly advancing with their own phones, which ran application technology that would cripple older BlackBerry devices.

“It was a massive win for BlackBerry because they needed an operating system,” said Kris Thompson, a technology analyst at National Bank.

“That saved their bacon.”

On Tuesday, BlackBerry shares rose 7.4 per cent, or 63 cents, to close at $9.14 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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