Because Everything Really Does Matter

December 31, 2014 | This summer, a colleague shared communication he’d had with an automotive supply company product developer who was researching noise ordinances. My colleague asked if he was working on reducing vehicle noise, and the developer explained that his role was to identify legislative trends related to vehicle noise. I filed that e-mail away, but its message danced on the edges of my mind for a while. It was clear that the goal was to develop a product whose noise was within legal limits, rather than to create a quieter product.

In November, The Atlantic published The Importance of the Vroom Vroom, which chronicled Ford sound designers’ task of creating an exhaust sound for the 2008 Mustang Bullitt that would be true to its source of inspiration. The article mentioned the concept of the Bullitt’s sound needing to be “street legal” – a concept that, given Ford’s lack of concern about its vehicles honking to reflect locking, starting, and other legally inappropriate situations – was curious.

Why the concern about a car whose total in sales was 6,400, when the grand total in Ford sales that year was 2,119,160 in the US and Canada – more than two million Ford vehicles sold in 2008 that honk the horn in otherwise quiet settings merely to assure owners of lock status? While the Bullitt noise was likely most often heard – mainly by the driver – on highways? It seemed odd that a company whose horn honking lock and remote start alerts violate state highway codes and local laws would be concerned about the legal status of an infrequently heard sound in a car that accounts for .3% of sales.

Ford is not alone in its odd classification of noise that matters and noise that doesn’t matter. Fiat Chrysler and General Motors have famously boasted of minimal cabin noise while ignoring their contribution in terms of lock alert honking and remote start honking in otherwise quiet residential settings. And Mercedes-Benz promises “the quietest – or nothing,” while its vehicles triple and quadruple honk throughout North America merely to denote lock status, while locking silently in Europe. And Mazda has been publicizing its admirable record of contributing to medical research while ignoring the health effects of its notably loud lock alert horn honking.

Does everything matter? These are some things that matter, and that should receive more attention:

Noise matters. Locate the loudest noise you can legally create, or create the quietest product possible?

Sleep matters. Online forums indicate that horn honking lock alert technology interrupts and shortens sleep, and clinical research indicates that shortened sleep can result in health effects, including but not limited to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

Community noise matters. Community noise contributes to sleep loss, annoyance, irritation, and reduced quality of life. Is it worth a few dollars to save by using the horn rather than installing a quieter sound source the way that half of automakers in North American have opted to do?

Words matter.The quietest or nothing”? For a car that honks three and four times to indicate locking and unlocking throughout quiet residential streets, in North America but not in Europe?

Everything matters. The argument that “one must accept noise in cities” is a weak excuse for creating noise polluting products. In every city there are noisy and quiet quarters, and both would benefit from the elimination of horn-based vehicle alerts. At the same time, cities aren't the only places where vehicle alert honking disturbs the peace - small towns and suburbs are now filled with the sound as well. Any company that positions itself as environmentally friendly and socially responsible should live up to its stated mission by developing and manufacturing the quietest products possible, bravely phasing out old noisy standards.

In 2013 and 2014 three automakers began transitioning their vehicles' audible alert option to an electronic tone, while others have used the tone for years, and some use flashing lights only. Who will attempt to create quieter products in 2015, and who will be left behind, clinging to those old noisy standards?

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