Thinking about the car horn

I was driving down Sepulveda Blvd near LAX when I stopped at a red light. It was one of those lights that just wouldn't turn green. There were very few cars, and I thought about going through the red light, but, I wasn't in a hurry.

A car came behind me and the driver seemed to be in a hurry. I looked through the rear view mirror and saw that he was aggressive. But there was nothing I could do; it was the red light. Then suddenly I big honk. In the moment of panic, I released the break and pressed the gas pedal. Realizing my mistake, I immediately lifted my foot and pressed back the brake.

This happened in a split of a second and the car moved only a couple feet. I was lucky to be at full rest so the car didn't move much. When I looked up the light was green, I continued on my way realizing that the other driver honked because I was just sitting still when the light was green. This got me to think about the car horn.

The car horn was originally developed by Oliver Lucas in 1910. The intention was to warn people of an incoming car. The car is a massive metallic machine weighing over 2 metric tons. At any speed, it is a dangerous machine that could crush anything on it's path, this includes other cars. It makes sense to have a way to warn others of its presence so they too can be careful.

When I was growing up, we referred to the car horn as Klaxon. Only now realize that it was a brand name.

Loud noise causes panic.

Not everyone responds the same way to loud sudden noise. It doesn't matter how tough I want to act sometimes, If you scream at me out of nowhere I will jump and panic. Where my hands and feet end up will be completely random. I once head butted a friend when he sneaked out from behind and yelled in my ears. I am sure you have your own experience too with loud noises.

Loud noise does not make you more careful. It activates an immediate unpredictable reaction that could either be the right response or the wrong one. When driving, the first thing that may come in mind after a honk, is to smash the break. This can be life saving or fatal. When you are on the freeway, stepping on the break may save you from colliding with the person in front, but it may cause the person behind you to go straight into you.

People don't take it as a warning.

The horn is an aggressive device. No matter what situation you are in, it makes the same disturbing sound. You want to let a driver know that his trunk is open, you hit the horn. You want to let a driver know that the light is green, you press the horn. You want to say hi, you press the horn. It is used as a universal communicator.

it's not what you say, it's what people hear — Frank Luntz

You may have the nicest of intentions but with a honk, might as well open your window an scream "Fuck you!". Whoever hears it will take it as a threat first before realizing what is happening. No wonder everyone has a very short fuse when driving.

What if it was a gentle chime.

There is this game called Journey. It is a multi-player game where players can connect and travel together in a sort of spiritual journey. In it's alpha stage, the developers tested different ways the players can play together. For every solution they had, someone found a way to be mean to other players. He would push someone off a cliff, join another group and abandon his partner, or just be mean. This is common in many online games.

The developers responded by stripping every thing they could from the game, including the main characters arms, so they won't push each other around. The only way left to communicate was by producing a gentle chime. With just this chime, people manage to communicate, and the best part is, they were naturally driven to help others. Check it yourself. By having only one (positive) way to communicate, it lead everyone to have a positive experience.

The point is, if there is only one way to communicate with other drivers, we have to make sure it is not limited to aggressive emotions.

Here is the John Nesky talking about how they designed Journey.

The alternative

It's hard to imagine an alternative. The horn has been part of the car for generations and we were born into it. Finding a better alternative need not just to be creative, but practical.

The problem is that a driver needs to communicate instantly with other drivers. The situation could be critical so we can't distract other drivers. Sometimes it is just a warning so it could be safely ignored. In other words, the message needs to carry it's importance, be prompt, and not distracting.


With the advent of reliable communication devices, it should be much easier to have cross-car communication. This won't solve the problem of distraction, but now we narrow it down to just an interface issue. It will only take a clever idea to seamlessly blend the car interface with the warning system.

Imagine the self driving car becoming mainstream. Since the cars can communicate directly, there will be no need for honking, just an API call and the two systems will resolve their issue. In case of emergencies, the car can spot a problem far ahead and silently communicate it to others without having to stress the passengers.

This is all beautiful but we are not there yet. The time where every car on the road is self driven is not something I expect to see in my lifetime, but in the meanwhile, I will think of the car horn. There needs to be less primitive way to communicate with other drivers.

I have no solution but hear this. Since 1910, technology has evolved considerably. Everything inside the car has evolved. We have better tools and a greater reach. Doing some research, it looks like not a lot of focus was given to the car horn. Maybe that's all it will take to get a better alternative, more people focusing on it.


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