German Engineering, American Style

If           ,  then     ?

February 1, 2015 | There is one question that invariably results in a smile, smirk, or laugh and then "No!" or "Of course not!" when you ask a European auto technician, acoustician, or car owner: "Does your car feature 'panic alarm'?" - the technology whose effectiveness is unknown and whose actual use seems to be limited to car locating or meting out punishment to people who thoughtlessly lean on one's car. Most Europeans and all Germans with whom I've communicated have told me that even if cars in their region were configurable for any non-emergency horn use, most people would not use it. A colleague living half of each year in Berlin and half in northwest Canada dreads his return to North America after six months of living without horn-based alerts. "I've read online posts that indicate some cars are configurable, and somewhere, someone uses horn sounds, but I have yet to hear it."

With horn-based acoustic alerts for locking, remote start, car locating, battery charging, and panic alarm, it is bad enough that domestic automakers opted to add noise pollution to residential settings. Unfortunately, some European carmakers followed suit, and worse still, they did so only with cars that they manufacture for US and Canadian markets. Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Saab use horn sounds to reflect lock status and panic alarm, at minimum. While BMW has never featured honking for lock status, the automaker does offer horn honking smartphone technology. So much for German engineering. When it comes to unnecessary vehicle noise emissions, German automakers seem to have decided that the US market requires more aggressive lock feedback than the rest of the world.

Each of the three German automakers has its own reason for deciding to adopt horn sounds to reflect trivial events, but none is more perplexing than Volkswagen's choice to do so.

Volkswagen is the top-selling car brand in Europe and Germany, with three cars in the top ten list of best-selling cars of all time. Not only have VW cars long enjoyed a reputation for safety and reliability, but the company and its cars have managed for decades to simultaneously capture the affection of both bourgeois and counterculture - although the brand's essence is probably more widely associated with non-conformity, anti-establishment, and freedom, and scholars describe its place in the broader culture as a symbol of counterculture, unconventionality, and individualism.

So it is difficult to understand why Volkswagen would adopt noise-producing technologies for its US and (because of proximity) Canadian markets. Volkswagen cars use horn-based lock confirmation, panic alarm, and its Car-Net telematics app offers "remote honk and flash" capability. Volkswagen's subsidiary Audi features a short, sharp noise that is called a "chirp" but sounds like an ultra-short horn sound, which is unlike the soft electronic chirps that many car brands now use.

But Volkswagen seems to go beyond "adoption" to a kind of overkill, sometimes featuring the horn sound in the background of its ads. Audi produced an ad that featured its lock alert sound - called "Chirp" - which features a woman who is awakened by the sound and a man whose reading is interrupted by the sound. It is as if Volkswagen took this minor but very irritating feature used by our domestic cars, incorporated it into use, and finds the feature worthy of highlighting, unaware that the feature is not universally loved among those who have to listen to it Many. Times. Every. Single. Day. Nor did it seem important that the technology violates state driving laws and local noise codes.

In the Golf forum Factory alarm option but no panic button on key, an author laments that he cannot find panic alarm with his car, which was manufactured for the Swedish market. There is back and forth with other owners, and one suggests that it is only offered in the US. Later the original author confirms, "Got an answer from VW Sweden, who said that the panic button key fob is only offered to the North American market."

There you have it: German engineering - American style.

Somewhere along the way, VW product developers must have gotten the idea that all Americans accept and embrace horn honking lock feedback. Maybe they assume that we really are all about excess, among other stereotypes. So they adopted the technology without question, and actively marketed it. It is a technology that is preferred by a subset of people who feel a need to hear acoustic feedback when they lock their cars, among a subset of car owners who will accept a quieter electronic sound, which is a subset of all car owners, which is a subset of everyone in the US and Canada. An odd decision coming from a car company that is renowned for quality and safety, not to mention its reputation for being non-conformist, anti-establishment, and unconventional. Sounds more like conformity.

Here is what some Volkswagen owners think of the technology, which is unprogrammable and requires visiting a dealership to turn off - sometimes without success.

DEI siren chirp on VW GTI MK6
Disable horn beep when locking
DIY: aftermarket siren (horn delete)
Honk by Volkswagen Passat
VW HORN Delete, Alpine Soft Chirp Siren
How to Turn Off the Horn When Locking VW Jetta
How Do I Silence The Horn Chirp When Locking My Golf?
"The neighbor-waking horn blast when locking is only thing I don't like about the car"

As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from a friend who travels for her job and writes every so often.

"When using a rental car I try my best to disable the horn on remote lock. Most of the time there is an owner's manual in the rental car and I make use of it. I also need to look up things like tire pressure, recommended fuel, and so on. The Volkswagen Jetta I rented several months ago does not permit the owner to change how the remote beeps the horn - that must be done at a Volkswagen dealership.

"The last three cars that I rented were VERY easy to change. The setup menu available through interactive screens that control things like lighting and the radio is very easy to use and turn off the horn feedback on remote door lock. I've used other setup programs on many other rental cars - just a menu selection, no tricky double pressing buttons on the remote.

"I am still turning off the horn because at the hotels where I often stay the parking is right next to or very near to the buildings and I do not want to wake or disturb other guests."

This friend believes, as I do, that configurability is good, but not featuring horn sounds to begin with is better.

Like every automaker, Volkswagen reports annually on sustainability and the environment. Like many automakers that have chosen to use disruptive emergency alert sounds to confirm trivial events, Volkswagen includes a passage on the importance of reducing noise whenever possible. This paradox is curious to anyone who has ever owned or rented a Volkswagen and not appreciated the unnecessary honking, as well as anyone ever awakened or startled by a stationary but honking Volkswagen. Concepts like environmental responsibility, sustainability, and accountability are a crucial part of every manufacturer's business model. But a real-world understanding and application of that rhetoric is what matters.

Volkswagen can and should stop using horn sounds for lock feedback and other non-emergency features in all of its vehicles. Implementing this change will position the automaker as compliant with US highway regulations, United States and Canadian noise codes, and in alignment with its own sustainability rhetoric.

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