Interviews Harman’s Rashmi Rao
Rashmi Rao is currently Senior Director, Advanced Engineering and User Experience, for the Connected Car Division at Harman, a Samsung Company, where she focuses on combining cutting-edge technologies with advanced user experience (UX) design and human-machine interactions (HMIs). She has more than 15 years of experience working for companies that include Apple, Qualcomm, and GE.
Conducted by Jenny Donelan
Harman has a long history in audio technology, dating back to the days when it was Harman Kardon. In fact, most people today still think of the company in terms of high-quality audio, but it has many more areas of business. I read that as of 2017, Harman had 30,000 employees and revenues of over $7 billion. Can you tell us what the company is up to these days?
Harman has been around for nearly 65 years. In terms of direct-to-consumer, it is true that our audio brand is the most recognized. We have four divisions: Connected Car, Lifestyle Audio, Professional Solutions, and Connected Services. Connected Car covers areas including augmented navigation, multimedia, security, and telematics, as well as displays and user experience, which is my area. Lifestyle Audio is the consumer-facing division, which handles car audio, portables, and home audio, including headphones, sold under brands like Harman Kardon and JBL. The Professional Solutions division equips concert halls and very large venues like hotels and theme parks with audio and corresponding control systems. Many of the world’s famous music halls and entertainment venues have Harman Professional systems – Carnegie Hall, Staples Center, and Madison Square Garden, for example. Connected Services is our software services and Cloud/IoT arm. Something that people don’t realize is that Harman has been doing automotive infotainment in cars for decades. Harman doesn’t brand the infotainment systems in the car, though; OEMs do.
My division is currently focusing on the digital cockpit, which combines both instrument cluster functions and infotainment and navigation, driving it from a single box.
ID: What changes occurred when Samsung acquired Harman in 2017?
RR: Once the announcement of Samsung’s intention to buy Harman was made in Oct 2016, I was like a kid in a candy store because of the unbelievable amount of synergy with Samsung’s user experience and displays. For example, we are bringing quantum-dot displays into the automotive market for the first time. We are leveraging the millions of dollars that Samsung has already invested to make QLED [quantum-dot enhanced LCD] a viable technology for television, and putting that into the automotive space. We are working with the same supply-chain partners for cadmium-free QDs that Samsung has in Korea.
And we have synergies with another division of Samsung, Samsung Display Corporation, which is focused primarily on OLED technology. This division makes the Galaxy line of mobile devices, as well as smartphones and tablets, and they are also, as you may know, the biggest OLED supplier for the iPhone X. We are collaborating with them to bring OLED displays, including flexible and transparent OLEDs, to the car. The way I think of it right now, LCD is the incumbent. We are working with that technology in terms of QLED. And we are working to make OLED technology going forward that can meet automotive requirements. Using both QLED and OLED, we, as Harman, have a two-pronged approach.
ID: By QLED, you mean QD-enhanced LCDs, correct?
RR: Correct. Our first phase is based on quantum-dot enhancement film; the second phase is QD glass, which is basically when you put the QD material onto the light-guide plate. Finally there will be QD pixel, which is the ”Holy Grail” – electroluminescent (EL) quantum-dot materials that will self-illuminate like OLEDs, but are inorganic. This is the roadmap for both Samsung TVs and for auto.
ID: So auto displays at Harman/Samsung are in step with Samsung TVs?
RR: If you look back, the automotive industry has always leveraged the consumer technology in terms of displays. When the consumer industry started moving to very, very high resolutions for smartphones, we began seeing 2K, 4K, 550 ppi. Two years ago, that was also the language of the automotive industry. But consider most automotive displays: They are about a foot away from you. If you go from 250 ppi to 500 ppi in a car display, the human eye won’t detect that much of a difference.
In 2014, Harman started looking at high-color-gamut displays for automotive. If you go from 70 percent color gamut in the CIE 1931 color space to 85 percent, you have a very perceivable difference to a viewer of an automotive display. And OLED was the only technology that could provide this visual quality.
ID: That is where QDs came in?
RR: Yes! In 2014, my group at Harman had started investigating cadmium-free QD materials for automotive but we lost access to the technology when Samsung acquired almost all the IP around cadmium-free quantum-dot materials. In Oct 2016, when Samsung announced the Harman acquisition, one of my first pitches to the executive team was for Samsung-Harman to collaborate on bringing QLED technology into the automotive market. It made a lot of business sense, because the bulk of the components were already automotive grade. The technology was ready for the market, and we were able to access Samsung’s cadmium-free quantum-dot material. So high gamut is the key focus right now for Harman’s automotive displays.
Rashmi Rao (left) discusses a digital cockpit demo with Young Sohn, President and Chief Strategy Officer for Samsung Electronics (right). Samsung completed its acquisition of Harman in 2017.
ID: What products are you most excited about right now that you can talk about?
RR: At CES 2018 this year, we showed a 28-in. curved QLED display as part of a Maserati Gran Turismo. It was a single 3,820 × 720 display that we drove from a single ECU but split into two 1,920 × 720 images for the center display and passenger display. In that production-intended Maserati concept we showed how we can drive up to seven displays from a single ECU because the system-on-a-chip (SOC) is powerful enough to do that now. This is a unique concept following up on what Harman won an Innovation Award for with Daimler earlier this year – the MBUX concept for the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. In the MBUX concept, there are actually two displays, laminated with a cover lens to create a seamless feeling.
Something else that gets me excited about QLED technology is that it’s affordable. The automotive industry is very cost-conscious, and QLED offers the visual quality that you can get with the best technologies like OLED.
ID: Can you describe your experience of moving from the consumer space to automotive?
RR: I was in the consumer world for more than 15 years, and I worked with some of the best companies – Qualcomm and Apple – where we were shipping millions of pieces per quarter. I thought, what can beat that? It has been a humbling experience moving into automotive for multiple reasons. First, automotive is a completely different application. In the consumer world, making a display last for three years, maybe five years, is the key focus. If you have some pixels that are not working on your phone, it’s okay. But it’s not okay in automotive. You need to make that display last, reliably, consistently, for 15 to 20 years in some of the harshest environmental conditions. That’s a seriously long period of time and a different kind of technology is required to make that happen.
Another extremely important issue is electromagnetic emissions. There are several electronics in the car that control many operations other than the infotainment system. If there is electromagnetic interference, that could be life-threatening. Taking care of this issue is one of the biggest investments that any Tier 1 or OEM company involved in automotive makes. So when we talk about making an automotive-grade product, we are talking about a level of diligence in terms of ensuring that that product is safe – that it’s not interfering with other components – that goes far beyond consumer. In addition, we have to design for several head-impact and potential accident situations and ensure that the display modules and systems fail in a way that does not further endanger the occupants.
This is also what makes the automotive industry take longer in terms of products to market. We have longer lifetimes between generations. There is some hesitation to change things that are working, because that means you have to go back and look at this new thing and make it work reliably and consistently, all over again. That’s another reason why we are taking the two-pronged approach for displays -- it leverages what the industry has already built (LCDs) and also looks forward with OLED.
ID: Why head toward OLED when quantum-dot-enhanced LCDs perform so well?
RR: OLED can actually offer a lot of advantages. Everyone talks about increasing the range of electric vehicles, but then you turn around and add bigger and bigger displays to them, which consume a lot of power, and you’re back at the beginning. Earlier smartphones had small displays because the backlighting advances couldn’t keep up with the increase in size and power and that is going to happen in electric vehicles as well. Then, when you start expanding to the autonomous realm, you are completely changing the paradigm from minimizing driver distraction to maximizing driver interaction. You want to have the driver look at the screen, and to look at the screen for longer periods of time. OLEDs are perfect for this because they are very light, and when you reduce the total weight of the car, it consumes less power. Also, because OLEDs are an emissive technology, you only use power when the image is lit or being driven or you’re changing or writing content, so OLEDs will have a huge impact on electric and autonomous vehicles and displays as we move forward.
With QLEDs, we are looking at doing something very similar to what the television industry does, which is localized dimming with a direct backlight that we locally turn off and on. We are offering two product categories for the QLEDs, QLED and QLED Premium. The first is basically just adding the QD film; the second is the QD film plus the localized dimming.
ID: When will OLED displays be ready for cars?
RR: I believe we will see OLED displays being shipped to OEMs by 2019. Volumes will be low but we are surely getting to the path of larger adoption. We are solving those fundamental issues of image sticking and encapsulation, as well as reliability in a wide range of temperatures, and lifetime.
ID: People in the display industry are looking to automotive (as well as to AR/VR) to keep profits and progress rolling. Will there be enough volume and innovation in displays for cars for that to happen?
RR: This involves standardization of sizes. Phones today are nearly all 4.5 or 5.5 inches, or 5.7 for the larger sizes. Tablets are 9 or 12 inches. Standard sizes for monitors are 15, 19, and 21 inches. And so forth. There is a specific, ideal number of panels you can have on a mother glass for a given generation of display fabrication, which allows you to have the maximum volume and yield. When you figure that out, you have mass adoption at the right price point.
Right now, if you look at the auto industry. BMW has a distinctive 8.8-in. trapezoid-shaped display. Volvo uses portrait-sized displays that are 8 or 10 inches. Audi uses 8- or 9-inch landscape displays. Each of these car makers has designed the car to incorporate these brand-recognizable sizes and shapes of displays. If you want to have more displays in your car – 10 or 12 or more – you are not going to customize every display for every car-line. That won’t make the price point. There should be a trend toward standardization of sizes in automotive, as has happened in every other industry. I think this is a key trend to watch for.
However, it doesn’t mean that every car is going to look the same. These standard-size displays can be combined (as in the Mercedes-Benz MBUX concept at CES) and used in different ways to create a unique user experience. In-car technology is becoming one of the key reasons why people buy a particular car.
ID: Let’s say it’s 2028. You are riding in a car. What does the interior look like?
RR: Besides lots of displays, there will be another technology we haven’t even talked about that is going to be disruptive – head-up display technology. I don’t mean the HUDs we see today in premium brands. I mean augmented reality and immersive, multidimensional 3D with a very large field of view. We will see prototypes for that kind of display technology in the next 6 months. if it is 2028, there won’t be a car without this. •
This article is based on phone and email interviews conducted by Jenny Donelan, editor in chief of