Most of Apple’s work on the Apple Car has been concerned with construction and design, but the company is inventing a whole new stereo system for the vehicle.
If countless Apple patent applications over the years have hidden how they were really to do with Apple Vision Pro, doubtlessly so many have actually been about the Apple Car. Yet now it’s as if Apple has given up trying to be secretive, because despite still not confirming a car is coming, it’s filed five new patent applications that are all about audio in the car.
Apple does seem to have adopted the phrase “enclosed environment” as a euphemism for car. Each of the five new patent applications uses that term and most do say it could apply to buildings, but all also say vehicles and some cannot be anything else.
Such as one about the speakers in a headrest. Maybe you’ve just turned your head to check traffic ahead of a turning, or maybe you’re leaning out of the car window ordering a McDonalds, but still Apple won’t let you miss a moment of a podcast.
“Because the head of the occupant may be disposed in the near field of the headrest speakers when the occupant is seated in the seat, movements of the occupant’s head and/or ears may affect the acoustic experience of the occupant,” says this patent application. “Aspects of the subject technology provide for modifications to audio output(s) from one or more speakers) mounted in a headrest, based on tracking of the location of the occupant’s head and/or ears relative to the locations) of the speaker(s).”
Or then there’s another patent application about speakers, but this time in a car door, or what Apple calls an “Access-Feature-Mounted External Speaker.” And Apple is sweating the details about how a door speaker sounds when that door is open or closed.
“In a closed position of the door, sound from the access-feature-mounted external speaker may be projected into a gap between the door and a structural interface of an enclosure, and redirected in part by the structural interface to a location external to the enclosure,” says Apple. “In an open position of the door, sound from the speaker may be projected into an opening in the enclosure.”
Then you tend to open and close car doors because you’re getting in or out — and your iPhone is going with you. Apple Car will seemingly have the same Handoff that we now get with, say, iPhones transferring playing music to a HomePod.
“[When] a user carries their portable electronic device into a vehicle, the vehicle can receive audio content from the portable electronic device,” says Apple, “and generate audio output that better fills the enclosed space within the vehicle than would be possible using only the speakers) of the portable electronic device.”
There is an issue, though, of what happens when you have two or more people in the car at once, all with iPhones and all with strong opinions about the music you should be listening to. We’ve already seen one result from this type of research, with in-car SharePlay coming as part of CarPlay in iOS 17.
But there is more. “Occupant-based Audio Control for Enclosed Environments” — that euphemism again — is about getting the best sound balance for the driver and for wherever the passengers are sitting.
That all leads to the last of the five new patent applications, and one that really shows just how Apple plays a long game. “Sound Stage Orientation For Enclosed Environments” takes everything Apple has said about Spatial Audio, everything it has promised about it for Vision Pro, and puts it in a car.
Unlike Spatial Audio on an iPhone or with Vision Pro, it can’t be aimed at one person when you’re in a car. Instead, this is group Spatial Audio — and it’s also a hint about seat arrangements in the Apple Car, which is then further a direct reference to autonomous driving, too.
For at first this patent application notes that “spatially oriented audio can… also be provided… in other enclosed environments in which all of the seats face in the same direction (e.g., in a vehicle in which all of the seats face in the forward direction of the vehicle.)”
“However, challenges can arise when providing spatially-oriented audio content in an enclosed environment in which the seats and/or the listeners (e.g., listeners seated in the seats) are oriented at various different orientations,” it continues.
“For example, in an autonomous vehicle (e.g., a fully autonomous vehicle or a semiautonomous vehicle in an autonomous driving mode) the seats of the vehicle may not need to face the front of the vehicle,” says the patent, “and there may thus be an opportunity to (e.g., at times when the vehicle is in an autonomous driving mode) orient the seats to face each other, or to face a central interior location (e.g., to facilitate communication or interaction between occupants of the vehicle).”
“In these configurations, spatially-oriented audio that is oriented with the same left-to-right orientation for all occupants/seats may create an undesirable and or unpleasant or confusing audio experience for one or more of the occupants that are oriented differently from the orientation of the audio content,” it continues.
Apple may still be playing dumb whenever asked about an Apple Car. But when that car comes, it’s going to have a fantastic sound system.