If two large automotive suppliers have their say, a vehicle's plastic headliner could become the stereo system of the future.
The suppliers — Lear-Donnelly Overhead Systems LLC and Johnson Controls Inc. — are talking of integrating vehicle speakers into a formed headliner, or the interior roof of a car or light truck.
That way, sound would emanate from above, nearer to the ears, rather than by a person's kneecaps, said Richard Perreault, president of the Lear-Donnelly joint venture. It would also free interior space in a door panel or console for storage bins or other features, he said.
``[The speakers] would be invisible to the eye in the headliner substrate,'' Perreault said at a Feb. 24 news conference. ``Its entire surface would feel the vibrations. Sound quality would definitely increase throughout the vehicle.''
Lear-Donnelly — a 50-50 joint venture of Southfield, Mich.-based Lear Corp. and Holland, Mich.-based Donnelly Corp. — will have to hold off interior-systems competitor JCI. While Lear-Donnelly is touting its new OASys sound reproduction system, JCI is shopping its Headline Audio system.
That product, developed with several audio manufacturers, is slightly different from Lear-Donnelly's. Instead of flat sound zones molded into the Lear-Donnelly headliner panels, JCI snap-fits more-conventional cone speakers into the interior roof during assembly.
No love is lost between the companies, either. Perreault said cone speakers are too heavy for a headliner and still would require supplementary speakers elsewhere in the interior. JCI's system requires several speakers in a vehicle's front and rear.
But Don Robinson, overhead system advanced sales manager for JCI, countered that the Lear-Donnelly flat-panel technology needs development before the market is ready.
Meanwhile, he said, the Headline Audio speakers should be on the road with an unspecified, U.S.-based automaker by model year 2002. The speakers weigh about one-third of a pound, compared to more than four pounds for conventional cone units, he said.
``I've heard a little about the Lear-Donnelly system, and I'm surprised at [their approach],'' said Robinson, based at JCI's Holland, Mich., technology center. ``You don't want to put all your speakers in the headliner. It's too distracting for all the sound to come from above instead of in front of you.''
Lear-Donnelly is aiming to get its first OASys system into a vehicle by 2003, Perreault said. Although development began just last summer after the group started work with a West Coast-based sound expert, the unique system has tested well with automakers, he said.
The proprietary OASys system consists of flat membranes that create sound through their motion, triggered by an electrical impulse from a wire harness.
The membranes normally are protected by a thin, pancakelike plastic cover and hidden under the headliner cover. Sixteen of those membranes dotted the headliner of a minivan on display at Lear-Donnelly's headquarters in Southfield.
Unlike other systems, the membrane and connecting wire harness can be integrated within the headliner substrate, avoiding the need for screws, brackets and speaker grilles. Any headliner material will work, said David Emerling, Lear-Donnelly director of advanced development engineering.
Most headliners in North America use thermoplastic urethane foam, fiberglass or PET for the energy-absorbing substrate.
``Cone coil speakers have been around since the early 1930s,'' Emerling said. ``We've always accepted that there was no other way to make a speaker. What we're offering is closer to a high-end home audio system.''
Lear-Donnelly is targeting premium-priced vehicles for the sophisticated audio system, Emerling said. The speakers may need a subwoofer elsewhere in the vehicle to enhance the deep bass sound, he added.
JCI also is looking into flat-panel technology, Robinson said. The supplier, with automotive headquarters in Plymouth, Mich., is developing a sound system using a piezo, a ceramic material that can be electrified, causing the pieces to flex and give off sound waves, Robinson said. That sound system, which is lighter and thinner than cone speakers, is still in development, he said.
Whatever emerges must face the strongest test: gaining approval from automakers. While the technology has been around for six years, it has yet to be used in a production vehicle.
``In my opinion, it hasn't been successful because people involved with sound systems in door panels refuse to participate with those involved in overhead systems,'' said David Clark, president of DLC Design, an audio engineering firm in Wixom, Mich., that helped JCI develop its Headline Audio system.
The Lear-Donnelly joint venture, formed in September 1997, wants to focus on entire overhead systems, Perreault said. Besides sound systems, that could include sun shades, grab handles, storage bins and other features. JCI is taking a similar approach.
Lear-Donnelly plans to open a new facility in Mexico this year to go with four plants to Ireland, the Czech Republic and the United States. Another site in Europe also is possible, he said.