Attention, distraction, and the next missed opportunity

Should marketers decide the fate of our soundscapes?

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. 1 2 3   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. Automakers and other industry stakeholders took advantage of this "public comment" period, but comment submission was open to the public.

Fewer than three hundred people or industry entities submitted comments about the proposed rulemaking. 5 Fewer than .00012% of American adults provided an opinion about their preferences about adding sound to quiet cars driving at slow speeds. Among experts who weighed in, there was appropriate representation on behalf of the Federation for the Blind, but not a lot of feedback from other non-industry experts who could have contributed to discussion of attention, distraction, and information processing.

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 sounds, it is evident that some marketers (and maybe some journalists speaking for marketers) still think that discordant "branded" sounds are a viable option - to the detriment of our health via an ever crappier residential soundscape.

If this comes to pass, we could wind up with a negligible change in some areas (those where the affluent live) and it might be 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 headsets much of the time).

It could, in fact, be discernibly crappier. But two aspects of this are even worse than the sonic litter aspect.

For one thing, what would all of this sonic litter have to do with vulnerable pedestrians needing to know that a car is approaching? The only truthful answer is "nothing." If branded sounds are used, there is no possible way that the learning curve is going to be easy.

This would also 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.

After the initial research and development phase with the Federation for the Blind and after the public comment period, it is difficult to understand why thoughts of branded sounds would be entertained at all. It is also difficult to understand why the entire process took five years. NHTSA missed an opportunity to decide three years ago that mandated sound emitted from a quiet car should sound like a car and let that be that.

And it's also difficult to understand how some automakers could incorporate horn honking into their pedestrian alert, even as visually impaired volunteers working on the process, automotive journalists, and car owners objected to the horn use. NHTSA should have taken a position and not allowed such discordant sounds to be used until the final ruling had been reached. 6 7 8 9 10

Update: November 14, 2016 | NHTSA announced having set the federal standard requiring certain vehicles to emit a minimum level of sound when traveling in reverse or forward at or below 18.6 miles per hour. A copy of the final ruling can be downloaded here, and includes seven words that are sure to be like music to the ears of so many: added sound should be "recognizable as a motor vehicle in operation."

(Close browser to return to Green Car Integrity)