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Does Your Car Need a Hearing Aid?

New tech promises to enable faster reactions to emergency vehicles and other road users
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Today’s cars are filled with sensory interfaces to help improve safety, security and convenience.

Driver-assistance systems use a mix of sensors to help see the surrounding environment. Drivers also can use voice commands—or even gestures—to access features and communicate with digital personal assistants.

Biometric sensors, meanwhile, can be used to identify owners, measure driver attentiveness or monitor their health. Companies also are developing in-vehicle smoke detectors and special scents to help prevent motion sickness.

The Art of Listening

Now Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) is developing a system to help vehicles listen to their environment. This includes recognizing individual sounds in the immediate area and off in the distance.

Researchers say the auditory technology could help drivers—or the vehicles themselves—identify unusual noises quicker and more precisely than they would on their own.

Source: Getty Images

Examples include:

  • Recognizing the siren of an approaching emergency vehicle
  • Hearing pedestrians or nearby children playing
  • Identifying changing vehicle noises that could require maintenance, such as a nail in a tire

IDMT says the system also could double as an emergency telephone equipped with voice-recognition technology.

How it Works

The system uses a microphone placed inside a modified roof fin to capture and enhance airborne noises. Sensors transmit the inputs to a control unit that converts them into metadata.

Machine learning software compares the sounds against acoustic libraries complied by IDMT, which has a division that specializes in hearing, speech and audio technology. This enables the system to identify the acoustic signature of specific sounds—including the location and direction of fast-moving objects—while suppressing irrelevant background noise.

What’s Next

In conjunction with industry partners, IDMT has created initial prototypes for testing and further development. The group aims to commercialize the technology by mid-decade.

In addition to alerting human drivers of potential problems, the researchers note, the technology could benefit future autonomous vehicles. The auditory system would work in conjunction with cameras, radar, HD mapping and connected vehicle technologies to provide a more comprehensive take on what’s happening, thereby enabling better-informed decisions.

Considering all the other sensor technology already available, it isn’t clear how much more capability the auditory system will add—or cost. But, at least in theory, it sounds interesting.

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