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  If Vehicles Could Speak  
Posted 2006-03-20 by Tony Walsh
I have often wondered if electric cars could pose a safety hazard due to their whispering engines. Gary Richards says "Quiet hybrids pose an 'invisible' risk." Let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that electric cars are truly silent enough to encourage a significant number of accidental collisions. How would we fix this problem, and how would we design future systems to prevent this problem?

For the answer to making silent cars heard, I turn to science fiction movies. I was thoroughly disappointed as a child of the 1970s when I was told that in space no one can hear you scream. Suddenly, crushingly, Star Wars made no sense. I've spent the last twenty or thirty years with this bubbling on the furthest of my brain's back-burners: Why, in sci-fi movies, does the audience hear the rumble and screech of spaceships? Here's what I've come up with: What the audience hears is what the occupants of spaceships would hear if their on-board computer systems obeyed (future, fictional) universal standards of HCI design.

In a science-fiction future, the fastest way to recognize whether your ship is being shot at is for your computer to play back the noises of the weapon as if you were hearing the weapon in an soundwave-friendly atmosphere. In a dogfight, the fastest way to know where a ship is in relation to yours is through audio cues. A good pilot wouldn't have to get a visual on an enemy ship--the pilot could tell, based on the audio simulation, the type of ship, its bearing, distance, and what sort of weapons it was firing. All known objects in the galaxy likely to be found in space would have their own standardized audio signature. This fictional system would work well. I know this from playing video games over the last quarter-century--with an excellent audio interface, you can almost play a spatially-complex 3D game blind.

The future is a long way off, but we have a problem (or at least a potential problem) right now with quiet electric vehicles. We might be able to fix this by developing standardized audio signatures--on a per-vehicle or per-type basis--and regulating the addition of noise-makers to all current cars. Future cars would be required to have such systems built in. Hopefully we'd deploy systems that were quieter than gas-burning cars, but distinct enough to draw attention.

Oh, and here's a business-case for adding custom audio signatures on a per-vehicle basis: Have you ever heard the engine of a vintage Harley Davidson V-twin? These are instantly-recognizable sounds to many motorists. In the case of Harley Davidson, the company applied for a trademark on the noise. In case you don't see where I'm going with this, there's an opportunity for branded custom audio signatures here. An audio signature doesn't have to sound like an engine, it just has to be distinctive enough not to be confused with any other sound. Perhaps a future electric sportscar would mash up a cheetah's growl and the sound of rushing wind with a metallic whirring noise. Suddenly you've got a safer car with a unique look, feel, and sound.
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Comment posted by csven
March 21, 2006 @ 9:11 am
When people first got a glimpse of the Segway, and they were ripping on it, I suggested that the tech could be used as part of an integrated vehicular pod network that communicated wirelessly (I hate to use the term, but each vehicle was a "blogject" that reacted to and worked with other pods). Merging onto highway traffic would always be a smooth operation since all the vehicles reacted as necessary (informed via a p2p network) to allow for the most efficient joining of the new pod to the flow. So there's still plenty of chatter/noise out there, only it's subsonic/ultrasonic/electronic.

We just need new ears.
Comment posted by liam
March 21, 2006 @ 11:09 am
Personally, one of the most attractive features of electric cars (besides the whole 'helping stop climate change' thing) IS the silence they will bring. I think a little less noise on our streets would be a great thing. We'll still have plenty of ear-piercing (and completely ignored) car alarms, honking car horns and booming stereos cluttering up our city soundscape. No one blames the silence of a bicycle when they nearly get plastered by a speeding bike courier.

For those worried about being hit by those silent killers known as hybrids, I have a bit of advice: turn off your ipod and look both ways before crossing the road!
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 21, 2006 @ 12:34 pm
Csven's suggestion of flocking, mutually-aware vehicles would preclude the need for noise-generating electric vehicles, at least where avoiding collisions with other vehicles is concerned (until humans become blogjects, too).

Liam, I'm not in support of more noise, but as a designer I know that sometimes you have to cater to user expectations, even if the user's expectations are wrong or founded poorly. We are used to living with noisy vehicles, therefore we expect vehicles to make noise, and when they don't, it can cause problems. Your assertion that no one blames quiet bikes for collisions is probably better stated as an opinion rather than fact. As a pedestrian, I've had a number of near-collisions with bicycles partly because of their silence (other factors were also involved). Why do you think good cyclists ding their bells when they are approaching a group of pedestrians? It's to announce the arrival of an otherwise silent vehicle in order to minimize the chance of an accident.

We are currently facing an uneven vehicular landscape: Electric cars share roadspace with hybrid and gas cars, with bicycles, and scooters. Because of this imbalance, we have unexpectedly quiet vehicles sharing the road with expectedly noisy vehicles. Gas cars can't reasonably be made any quieter, but electric cars can reasonably be made noisier (but not necessarily "noisy"). Once all roads are populated by electric vehicles, we can begin to safely wean people off of the noise.
Comment posted by liam
March 21, 2006 @ 1:35 pm
Good point about the cyclists, Tony. Perhaps the silent electric cars will honk their horns when they're about to run someone over - much the way noisy gas cars do today.

I understand about designing to user expectations, I just don't think we should design for the pedestrians who are complete idiots and get hit by stuff they can't hear. But I do think it would be great if we all had audio signatures. I just don't want the cool ones like a cheetah's growl going to cars. That one I want for myself (and a cheetah's tail would be cool too, but I guess that's what Second Life is for.)
Comment posted by csven
March 21, 2006 @ 1:39 pm
"until humans become blogjects, too"

Between cell phone ubiquity and implantable RFID chips, I'm betting we become spimes (I use that higher-level term to include the "cradle-to-grave" recycling aspect it incorporates*) before our vehicles do.

*cough ... soylent green ... cough
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 21, 2006 @ 1:55 pm
Liam, my point is that silent cars probably wouldn't have to honk their horns as much if pedestrians knew the silent cars were coming in the first place. The idea is to prevent problems, not wait for a preventable problem to occur and then apply the fix.

A driver seeing a pedestrian and honking the horn is a slower combined reaction than a pedestrian hearing the car signature and proactively avoiding a dangerous situation.

A horn indicates danger is imminent--if a horn could speak, it might say "Get the hell out of the way, I'm not sure I can avoid you in time!!" A signature lets you avoid imminent danger by facilitating an informed decision--if a signature could speak, it might say "Just so you know, there's a car approaching your general area, so don't go running into the street."
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