Does anyone have the right to colonize the soundscape?

Photo credit: Life Of Pix

by Jeanine Botta, MPH, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

John Seabrook’s New Yorker article about branding with acoustic vehicle alert sounds covers some of the details in my recent blog post and earlier article in the Right to Quiet NOISELetter. But Seabrook’s article goes much further, offering a glimpse into the inspiration, motivation, and thought processes of sound designers who will be changing the North American soundscape over the next several years, while possibly failing to achieve the goals of the Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System as established in the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010.

Some who follow this technology believe it’s crucial that pedestrians easily discern its sounds’ meaning. Pedestrians may eventually need to do this with as many as 60 unique branded sounds. Seabrook puts this question to General Motors’ engineer and senior expert in exterior noise Douglas Moore more than once, and Moore’s answers sound at times oblique, at other times unrelated to the question. Seabrook asks why the regulations don’t require AVAS to sound more like internal combustion engine vehicles, since people know those sounds and won’t need to learn them. Moore rationalizes that the purpose of AVAS is “to provide information about what the vehicle is doing, and there is more than one way to do so.” But Moore doesn’t explain how people will discern this given as many as 60 sounds. He says that we’ve learned internal combustion engine sounds over the course of a century, and that “before cars were around we knew that the clip-clop of horses meant the wagon was coming. So there’s nothing inherent in those engine sounds.”

Perhaps. Transitioning from recognizing horse wagon sounds to recognizing a few similar sounding motor cars probably wasn’t difficult. And if there are far fewer AVAS sounds, the transition could be just as easy. But if 60 brands are competing to sound unique, will this rationale hold up? Descriptions of only three are as different as it gets: “The Porsche Taycan Turbo S has one of the boldest alerts; you’re in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab a he flips the switch to animate the monster,” while the Audi E-Tron CT Quattro’s full alert sound “references the sumptuous soundscapes of the film ‘Tron’ and its sequel.” The 2023 Cadillac Lyriq features a pedestrian alert that was made using a didgeridoo.

AVAS sounds may not be blasting or aggressive, with the exception of Musk’s Boombox sounds still usable in park. Some we may enjoy, and we might find ourselves with favorites. None of that matters if vulnerable pedestrians cannot discern a given AVAS sound as an approaching vehicle. At the same time, in suburban and residential neighborhoods and apartment complexes where hundreds of units face parking lots, the sonic clutter stands to reduce quality of life.

No robust independent surveying has been done. Ford Motor Company surveyed “Ford fans” to determine preferences in AVAS sounds. Author Seabrook looked for answers in his own uncited survey in comments below YouTube videos, concluding that most people think electric vehicles should not sound like internal combustion engine cars. These surveys don’t answer questions about how the majority of people will feel if this experiment doesn’t work out, when they realize that they had no say–-or that in fact they did have a say, but they didn’t know it at the time.

In 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking and solicited comments from the public. Few people know about this process, and there is no effort by regulatory agencies or elected leaders to raise awareness, although taking this measure during the planning phase could prevent decades of dealing with complaints. The notice asking for comments about automakers being able to offer selectable sounds with AVAS garnered 55 responses, some from organizations, and some from individuals.

In a rare moment of less than positive conjecture, Doug Moore admitted that “we could wake up in five years with eighty per cent E.V.s, and it’s a cacophony of sound and dissonance if these cars are all singing different tunes, in different key signatures and pitches.”

Jigar Kapandia, creative sound director also with General Motors, tells Seabrook, “I feel fortunate that I get to work on features that will influence the way the world will sound.”

A decade ago, automotive marketers promised us electric cars would make the world quieter. Vehicle sound designers pushed to make the need for AVAS about acoustic branding first, pedestrian safety second. Regulators and professional organizations ignored clear misuse of AVAS technology so that drivers could prank pedestrians. Who decided that it would be okay to colonize the soundscape? For decades, automakers have immersed the soundscape with alert sounds to signal security status, door locking, remote start, backup, and many other functions. Does a small group of sound designers have the right to claim sovereignty over the soundscape by adding more sound effects while not even clearly fulfilling the purpose of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act?

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