News came out this week that Apple’s iOS 13.4 contains technology that will allow people to use their Iphones and Apple watches to unlock, lock and start their cars. This latest development shows just how far car technology has come from the time my family went on a now-legendary trip from Chicago to Ithaca, New York.
There we were, my mother, father, grandmother, older brother, younger brother, me, golden retriever and shetland sheepdog, all packed into our baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, luggage piled up on top. For two days, my younger brother and I sat in the very back - with the engine directly behind us - staring at each other because we couldn’t move, packed tightly into our little death trap. So you can imagine my reaction now whenever one of the young people in my life complains that their iPad isn’t working and they can’t watch their movie on our hour-long car ride.
Cars now have seat warmers, seat coolers, seats that can give you a massage, cup holders, navigation systems that know where you are, even when you don’t, back up cameras, 360 cameras, adaptive cruise control and systems that can practically drive for you. But there is one crucial area of the automobile that technology has passed over: the horn.
Maybe automobile designers and engineers have never lived in a small town and don’t understand how a tight-knit community communicates. As we’ve learned from emails and text messages, tone matters. And like emails and text messages, we can’t determine tone with the current horn design. No, we need three separate tones.
First, we need the friendly, hey neighbor “toot-toot!” No need to scare everybody around you just because you see your friend Gayle and want to make sure she sees you, too. I was in Bermuda once on a business trip and the drivers toot-toot just about every car and scooter they encountered. It was confusing at first - all these drivers honking at each other - until I realized the intent, and then it became the happiest cacophony of horns ever heard. But how much happier if the sound was actually a “toot-toot”?
Second, we need the polite “eh-hem” for the times the driver in front of you doesn’t notice that the traffic signal has turned green. It’s a small town, you don’t want to angry-honk the car in front of you; it may be a neighbor or someone you know, so we need a gentle nudge of a horn. And we’ve all, at one time or other, been that driver sitting at the now-green light with cars backed up behind us (once, returning home following a three-day road trip in which I visited some 10-12 cities each day, I realized I was sitting at a stop sign waiting for it to turn green). We don’t want to be yelled at, we just want our attention pulled back to the task at hand.
Finally, we need the “AHHH!! STOP!” tone. This is reserved, of course, for those times when danger is imminent, and you need to warn other drivers, pedestrians or bicyclists.
I know what you’re thinking: that’s a lot of split-second decisions for drivers to make. But with the way technology is going, our cars should be able to make those decisions for us. After all, my car has my phone contact list. Is it so hard to imagine my phone recognizing one of my contacts being close by (because, let’s face it, our phones are probably talking to each other and we don’t even know it) and toot-tooting while showing me a photo of who to look for? A “stealth mode” could be activated by drivers trying to get across town undetected, but, in small towns, that setting is probably a waste of time.
And the way technology is advancing in our infrastructure, it’s entirely possible for traffic signals to talk to our cars and let them know when the light turns green. If the driver doesn’t respond within a few seconds, a gentle “eh-hem” urges them forward.
Rearview and sideview cameras already alert drivers when they get too close to an object; why couldn’t cars also honk out a warning when there is danger of a collision?
Children of my generation dreamed that one day we’d have flying cars. I know I certainly wished for that as I sat staring at my brother on that infamous family trip. Now, though, cars have everything we can possibly imagine for our comfort. The next frontier in engineering should be to make them better communicators.