Design-Think Challenge: Make Your Car-Horn Smart

About Time The Car-Horn Gets A Much-Needed Update

Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities
Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities

Cars have evolved dramatically yet the car-horn remains essentially the same: a brutish, beastly remnant that barks loudly and incoherently in our ears and our cities’ soundscapes with its harshness. Can design-think solve this problem? Here are some quick notes I made as I crawled in a huge traffic snarl in New Delhi recently, with horns just hooting and honking thoughtlessly all around.

Am looking forward to all of you discussing and pitching in with your design-thinking to give this a more evolved and final shape, and to have you implement at least some ideas to get the wheels moving in this direction. You sense the birth of new startups here?

Horns With Eyes

Let’s give eyes to our horns. Imagine we set up sensors in the car. Sensors that continuously monitor the eyes of the driver. The moment the driver presses the horn the sensors immediately track, in milliseconds, with sensors outside, what is it that the driver is seeing that prompts her to honk. In the case of motorbike and two-wheeler scooter drivers, the sensors and tech are embedded into the helmet and are synced with the vehicle’s horn. I know this is a rather sophisticated and demanding piece of tech, but it is possible. In fact, such ‘driver monitoring systems’ have already been designed and exist since more than four years. For instance, take a look here. None, however, explore how to integrate these smarts into a horn and to curb our propensity towards honking.

The smart-horn system not only quickly identifies what is the driver honking at, but also assesses why, using machine-learning. Here are some typical real-world user-case scenarios, and on how it is programmed to respond. The driver honks at:

  • A car ahead to give way. The system emits no sound into the open environment. Instead, it blinks an icon on the dashboard inside the other car and sounds a gentle, specific tone that indicates to the other driver to give way. Imagine the peace and silence outside.
  • A jaywalker who suddenly steps in front of the moving car or bike. A short note designed to alert but not alarm, emitted only in the direction of the jaywalker and adjusted to be audible enough for the short distance.
  • Children or a procession in front to give way. First, the system ensures the vehicle cannot speed in such a situation.The horn quickly changes its tone to a fun, cheerful, musical chime that will catch the attention of the children or the procession, and makes them alert and also happy. The volume of the alarm automatically levels down to fill only the area with the children or the group in front and not travel further than that. Did you know most horns are typically 103dB and above. Factor in closer proximity and that may cause permanent damage to ears.
  • A speeding vehicle coming headlong. The systems on both the vehicles will attempt to avoid the collision by setting each on a different course while dramatically slowing down the vehicles. Emergency warning tones and notifications fill the cockpit of the two cars. It also checks if the respective horns have to be sounded externally, and will rapidly decrease the volume as the vehicles near. Yes, you read that right.

Of course, in every situation the system will have a quick over-ride placed at the steering wheel, so the driver may blare away if required in any case.

Road-Rage? Just Horn OK Please

So what else can the system do? For trigger-happy, road-ragin’ folks who love to press the horn hard, the system will always play the sound of the horn inside the car for psychological comfort, without actually playing it outside in the open. This is a little like that camera-shutter sound you hear when you click a photo with your mobile-phones. There is no manual shutter mechanism in a smartphone. The system will also trigger the appropriate alert-sound and notification inside the targeted vehicle or towards the pedestrian, but with more pleasant notes and volume. More importantly, sensors monitoring the eyes and those embedded in the horn measure the psychological state of the driver. It specifically picks up cues for aggression, impatience, anger, rage, frustration, as well as panic, drowsiness, and even drunkenness. Based on these cues, the system will intervene as appropriate. The possible interventions that can be designed would need a whole, separate post, but you get the idea.

For instance, it could play soothing music; release calming and pleasant aromas to soothe the nerves; and even talk to the driver. In states of drowsiness it could turn up the music-levels, turn down the temperature considerably, and release sharp lime-based aromas in the car to make the driver more alert. In the case of drunk-driving, the system may suggest and even prompt the driver to pull over or even book a cab, and on refusal, may alert authorities and loved-ones as well.

Look Dashing on Your Dashboard

The local authorities could also set up analytics on the smart car-horn. Based on how sparing and courteous the driver is with the horn, parking-lots and gas-stations could offer discounts as a government incentive. The results of the analysus may also negatively or positively impact the car-insurance policy premium and bonuses. Yeah, this rabbit-hole can go quite deep.

The system makes the use of the car horn in our outdoors almost redundant, bringing much-needed peace and quiet in our cities and our lives. The sounds are also tailored to indicate context and emotion, rather than just blare the same loud and garish notes. For this system to be successful, the government needs to set policies, resources, and deadlines. Car and vehicle manufacturers could launch such systems as smart value-additions. And I foresee a slew of startups that see the numerous opportunities available in this space.

All of this may take anything from two to five years, but eventually our cities will get less noisy and more quiet, and our citizens more civil and courteous. We may then just finally say “OK TATA” to the rudeness and crudeness of the archaic car-horn.

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