One car, three perspectives

November 30, 2014 | When it comes to horn use with lock confirmation, people often ask the same question: how was this technology able to come to market? It is impossible to know how it passed its first hurdles in spite of violating highway code and local laws related to non-emergency horn use.

People who are bothered by the technology wonder how it has continued to exist - some cars have been using the horn to signal lock status for almost twenty years. But many people are not bothered by the technology, and many are not yet aware that it exists. Among those who wish it would go away - how many of them have formally complained? Probably not many. Some people have shown neighbors how to lock silently. Some homeowner associations have asked residents not to use it. Some people would like to complain but wouldn't know where to begin.

Still others have complained about the feature in their own cars at the dealerships where they bought them. Some have written to newspapers, some to members of Congress, and some have written to automakers, to SAE, to NHTSA. There seems to be no central location where people might register a complaint about an issue that for the most part doesn't qualify as a safety issue. How would an automaker gauge that an issue like this is a problem, if only a handful of complaints are received over time? Would something like this be picked up in a survey, or a focus group? What about traditional car reviews involving technical data and test drive feedback?

Some car reviews are highly technical, seemingly written by experts for experts rather than for a lay audience. A good example of this is Motor Trend's look at the Chevy Volt in 2011, when Motor Trend named the Volt Car of the Year, and again in its 2014 review. The reviews are positive and the feedback that follows is positive.

Another kind of car review seems more subjective, relatively less technical, less dense, as if intended for a lay audience. In the New York Times, Joe Nocera describes his experience test-driving the Volt during a holiday weekend, noting its "whisper-quiet" ride. Positioning his experience in a broader sociocultural perspective, Nocera certainly doesn't mention a single instance of unexpected noise, or inappropriate horn honking.

In a more technical but similarly subjective sounding review in Consumer Reports, Eric Evarts encounters one of the Volt's several uses of inappropriate horn honking - and he mentions it, and he does so more than once. Evarts actually consults with a GM spokesperson who handles the question by explaining that the honking in question is the "pedestrian-friendly alert" intended to warn pedestrians that a quiet car is approaching. This explanation seems to satisfy Evarts to a degree, at least to the extent that he doesn't press the issue. He brings up the fact that the honking creates the potential for annoyance among neighbors, and even ends the review by mentioning the honking. But even so, the review is positive, and ultimately the honking is positioned almost as a quirk that can be tolerated.

The highly technical expert-to-expert type of review and the more subjective and personal test-drive focused review are just two types of reviews along a continuum. A third type of review can be found in online car forums, and this is where you will find some of the most well articulated, well written, funny, and detailed examples of highly specific car features, including horn-based lock alert, and other technologies that are now using horn sounds as an alert.

There are forums with this type of complaint for nearly every car that uses the horn for this purpose, and forums that complain about the technology generally. But to contrast specifically with the reviews above, these reviews only focus on the horn sounds created by the Volt for purposes of non-emergency alerts. Some comments are positive, and some are neutral, as in A guide to what your Volt is saying.

Others are negative and express exasperation.

"My garage happens to be under my neighbor's bedroom window so when I come home late in the evening I absolutely cringe as I plug in my car because I know the horn will sound. It's so rude that sometimes I'll just drive on gasoline the next day to avoid disturbing my neighbors." (charging honk)

"Recently at a national park, everybody is enjoying the quiet and beauty of nature, but when I get out of the car before my wife, we get three rather loud honks, no doubt disturbing all the people who wanted beauty and quiet." (spare key left in car honk)

"I agree that the "pedestrian friendly alert" is too jarring, because it is simply the car horn. I usually get indignant stares when I use it."

For the longest time, I've wished that environmentally friendly auto product developers and other key decision makers would read some of these posts. I've wondered if enough decision makers were more aware of how this kind of technology affects people and alters the natural soundscape, if the last of those hanging on to horn use would see things another way. Anticipating a meeting that ultimately did not take place, a colleague and I put together a content analysis of three online forums. When I find a really well written forum, especially one with passionate, intelligent, well developed arguments, I'll break it down in a kind of simple analysis. But until recently, I'd begun to give up hope about this resource ever being put to use. But very recently two articles appeared that surprised me and gave me a bit of hope.

Last week, General Motors announced that staff at every level will be monitoring customer complaints posted to social media and car forums in addition to standard means of measuring safety issues and other potential problems. Almost a week later, I read an article about researchers who analyze online reviews. Who knew?

I hope that others will follow suit, and consider mining information where they hadn't thought to look before. There is so much information here that deserves attention.

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