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Teaching Cars to Honk, Beep and Hum

Self-driving cars are ready to start testing a variety of sound alerts

Automotive makers, digital conglomerates and ambitious start-ups have been testing driverless cars for years now around the United States, in special dedicated facilities, such as MCity, and elsewhere around the world. And, until today, it has been a very silent pursuit. Now, after having steered over millions of miles without ever resounding an annoying honk or beep – or nearly so – it is time be heard. And not just in the news.

The stereotype of a driverless car is that it is extremely silent. And this is true – or has been. Until recently, the honks, beeps and hums of many driverless cars have only been emitted inside of the vehicle, where car testers and evaluators have monitored the cars’ artificial intelligence system learning curves and tweak the systems as necessary. Now, our driverless car prototypes are ready to resound their horns, but only when absolutely necessary.

Self-driving cars are designed to be safe. And one key to safety, in fact, is sound. These cars will need different honks, just like humans do: say two short toots to signal the vehicle’s approach for cars pulling out of driveways and similar “standard warning” events and a classic long blast for situations of imminent possible danger. Electric self-driving cars will also be equipped with a range of other sounds, such as a low humming noise, for instance, to replicate the sound of a car engine, designed to help pedestrians, especially those with impaired sight, and cyclists become aware of a vehicle’s proximity. Moreover, in order to replicate the sound patterns that we have become used to over the years, the hum of these driverless cars will grow louder during acceleration and softer whilst the vehicle slows down.

“Our goal is to teach our cars to honk like a patient, seasoned driver. As we become more experienced honkers, we hope our cars will also be able to predict how other drivers respond to a beep in different situations,” indicates a recent Google Report on the Self-Driving Car Project.

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