Here's what I want to know about driverless cars, and the future of the automobile in general: What are we going to do about the horn?
Headier questions will no doubt be answered first, as tends to be the case when we're confronted with an idea that could radically change the way we do things (see: Jeff Bezos and his delivery drones). People understandably want to know what the regulatory framework will look like, how you stop autonomous vehicles from getting hacked, and who (what?) is liable for a driverless crash.
But the fate of the horn is also pretty important. It's been with us since 1649, when Nuremberg watchmaker John Hautzsch debuted a horseless carriage that supposedly propelled itself using the same mechanics that move the hands of a watch. Capable of creeping along at one mile an hour, Hautzsch's invention frequently saw its route blocked by curious crowds. According to Edgar B. Schieldrop's The Highway, the newfangled carriage had two ways of dispersing pedestrians: an ornamental dragon head would spit water at them, and angel-shaped horns blared noise at them. Which means Hautzsch introduced not only the first car, but also the first car horn.
When the automobile began to challenge the horse-drawn carriage for command of the street, auto-opponents demanded that cars be outfitted with noisemakers for much the same reason that lepers were once required to shout "unclean" as they approached villages: Cars were prone to upsetting horses and endangering pedestrians. (The anti-car crowd had a point: 1921 saw 24 car-related fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the U.S.; 2001 had only 1.51 car-related fatalities per 100 million VMT*.) Thirty years ago, Eugene Garfield cataloged the historical warnings required of automobile operators in his brilliant essay, "The Tyranny of the Horn":
One Massachusetts lawmaker proposed that all cars be equipped with a bell that would ring with each revolution of the wheels. Another suggested that motorists shoot Roman candles ahead to forewarn drivers of approaching horse-drawn vehicles. The Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania demanded adequate warning but added, “If a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile, the driver should take the machine apart and conceal the parts in the bushes."
Garfield goes on to note that the shift from horse to car greatly reduced urban noise pollution. The sound of hooves and carriages clacking over cobblestones in pre-automobile urban America was apparently a source of great anxiety and psychic stress. But the reprieve granted by quiet rubber tires didn't last long; soon the streets were filled with cars, all of them equipped with amazingly loud horns.
Today car horns are still a leading source of noise pollution in urban centers. India's honking problem is so severe that the response to it—from both activists and government officials—mirrors the response to an actual epidemic. Officials in Peru, meanwhile, began treating honking like a serious crime in 2009, threatening to confiscate the cars of people who honk when they shouldn't. Last year, Shanghai decided to expand the area covered by its 2007 car horn law. Originally aimed at reducing noise pollution downtown, officials wanted to curb honking "by airports, subway stations, and the intersections of major roads." Why all the fuss? Because noise pollution is actually pretty damaging, albeit in a less-than-obvious way. The World Health Organization took a crack at quantifying the impact of noise in 2011, and concluded that "one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western part of Europe."
America has waged its own war on excessive honking, which we can loosely define as honking when your life, or someone else's life, is not in danger. In 1972, the U.S. Congress considered noise pollution (a category that includes, but is not limited to, noises made by motor vehicles) to be a big enough problem that it funded the Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Housed within the EPA, ONAC conducted "investigations and studies on noise and its effect on the public health and welfare." The Noise Abatement office was tasked with identifying major sources of noise, determining safe levels of noise exposure, and drafting noise regulation. For reasons familiar to observers of bureaucracy, ONAC didn't accomplish much. In 1981, President Reagan requested that ONAC be defunded, and Congress complied.
In more recent decades, states and municipalities have continued to crack down on unnecessary honking by instituting fines. Yet those laws haven't solved the problem, either. Last year, New York City all but gave up on taming its honkidemic. In a move bemoaned by people who love peace and quiet, NYC took down its "Don't Honk" signs. There's still a $350 fine on the books for illegal honking, but The New York Times reports that the law is very rarely enforced.
Of course, even if government could suppress our honking instincts by using force, there's a case to be made that honking is free speech, that harsher penalties could have a disparate impact on the poor, and that government has better things to do.
Which is why I think we should be thinking about how to engineer our way out of this problem. There are some theories beyond fining honkers and impounding their cars. Jeff Jonas of IBM suggested in 2012 that we "ration" horn honks. "I say you only get a few honks a month and after that there is a surcharge," Jonas told the BBC. "You are going to have to pay for it if you want to use the horn more than that." And here's a proposal from the bowels of Reddit: "Make all car horns different notes in the same chord so traffic jams sound like heavenly choirs." (Along those lines: Jalopnik's guide to creating a car-horn organ, which you can do if you know what note your horn is tuned to.)
As for things people are actually trying: Drivers in India honk so much that vehicle manufacturers have developed more robust horns, and horn replacement is considered routine vehicle maintenance. The fact that honking is so integral to navigating the country's congested streets makes it fertile testing ground for the manufacturers of a device called Bleep, which turns on an annoying dashboard light every time the driver hits the horn. The driver then has to lean over and turn the light off. The device's manufacturers claim that Bleep reduced honking by 61 percent.
These solutions are fascinating, and Bleep even seems workable—assuming you could get widespread adoption. But let's not stop there. Honking has been around as long as the automobile, and is every bit in need of a rethinking on par with the hybrid and the driverless car.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited statistics for car-related fatalities for the years 1921 and 2001. Those figures are per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, not per 100 million people.