October 21, 2016 | At an acoustics meeting session on transportation noise in 2013, several sound designers discussed challenges involved with creating vehicle warning sounds. Electric, hybrid, and even newer ICE vehicles had such a quiet approach that they could not be detected by visually impaired pedestrians.
When there was time for questions, I asked one presenter what the implications would be for the learning curve for visually impaired pedestrians and others if they had to discern that "branded sounds" represented approaching cars. The presenter said that that wouldn't be a problem, and moved on to the next question.
At the time, it had been three years since passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act 4 and until three months earlier, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had been accepting feedback regarding technical parameters for the sound. Naturally, automakers and other industry stakeholders took advantage of this "public comment" period, but comment submission was open to the public.
Can we try an impromptu experiment? If you work in the auto industry or for an automotive regulatory agency, you will have to exempt yourself or try this out at another time and in another place. Everyone else, go outside and ask these questions of the next ten adults you encounter:
1) Were you aware that there was a public comment period for some emerging automotive technologies where any American can give his or her opinion?
2) Did you submit a comment reflecting your opinion of sound that will be added to quiet vehicles in 2013?
3) Have you ever submitted a comment to NHTSA?
If you actually conducted this very casual convenience survey, if you did not happen upon one of fewer than three hundred people who submitted comments about the proposed rulemaking 5 it is likely that all of the answers to the above questions were "no." That is because fewer than .00012% of American adults provided an opinion about their preferences about adding sound to quiet cars driving at slow speeds.
More than three years after the transportation noise session where I realized that many very smart people discern no problem with infusing residential streets and parking lots (which often border homes and yards) with distracting branded jingles, it is evident that marketers have jumped all over this "opportunity" - an opportunity that it is fair to say was afforded by NHTSA in its ever risk averse tendency to not want to disappoint the auto industry - to the detriment of our health via an ever crappier residential soundscape.
If this comes to pass, it will probably seem as if each individual sound - one car here, another one there - is not creating a huge amount of noise. Each unique instance could even be like just a few seconds of hearing someone's ring tone. And if you hear say twenty, or thirty, or eighty of these, well, that might be like hearing twenty, or thirty, or eighty ring tone sounds, for a few seconds each. It could wind up being a negligible change in some areas (those where the affluent live) and just a little bit crappier in denser areas - think of the areas where there is always litter, and once in a while someone upends a trash can and there's even more litter for a day or two - but the majority of people will adjust (especially those who listen to music in a headset much of the time).
It will, in fact, be discernibly crappier. But two aspects of this are even worse than that.
For one thing, what the hell does all of this sonic litter have to do with vulnerable pedestrians needing to know that a car is approaching? Please - don't even bother to answer. The only truthful answer is "nothing." There is no possible way that the learning curve is going to be easy, especially for people with visual impairment.
This is also going to add - in the fashion we refer to as "a ton of feathers" - to the psychic clutter that has brought us to a place where we are constantly fighting distraction.
What is inexcusable is NHTSA's complicity in the crappiness that will be added to our already compromised soundscape, including added distraction, and its attendant burdens to further filter out meaningful distraction and the meaningless, useless marketing aspects of "sonic branding."
NHTSA is inundating television audiences with social marketing public service announcements related to driving safety, including some PSAs about distracted driving. So essentially NHTSA is telling us to discipline ourselves by avoiding our primitive urges to see what the latest electronic "ping" could be while we're driving, but giving automotive marketers and sound designers absolutely free reign to create more distraction.
Would you consider adding twenty or thirty short ring tones to someone's life for the hour that they decide to spend relaxing in a yard that borders on a slow zone "no big deal"? Would you feel secure about a sleep deprived parent getting distracted by one sonic brand that suddenly resonates for whatever reason, affecting the part of memory associated with taking a baby out of the car?
NHTSA had a chance to protect our attention and soundscape by saying "no" to sonic branding. Instead, as it so often does, NHTSA missed an important opportunity to be the adult in the room. Sort of like the designated driver in one of its current PSAs.
When it comes to elements that will be introduced to any aspect of the environment, polling a tiny fragment of the public to reach a decision is woefully inadequate. Opinions from fewer than .00012% of the public told NHTSA nothing. The agency should work harder to solicit opinions from scientists and from the public if a new technology has the capability to add sound to the environment and the capability to affect attention. At the same time, NHTSA should solicit this kind of information about any sound that is going to be added to the environment. Had NHTSA done this twenty years ago, we would be able to open our windows without hearing a horn honk every time someone locks a car.
And NHTSA is not alone in disregarding the sound environment. Automotive designers and engineers could have decided to use a clip that sounds like a car - and some have done so. Other industry stakeholders could step up and call out marketers who are pushing this technology. And sound designers could design sound clips for contexts other than those involving shared space.