The same soundproofing that helps make cars quiet on the inside also obscures sounds from the outside that could help drivers spot potential hazards. To remedy that, Ford is testing a new system in Europe that pairs automatic hazard detections with in-car sound effects so drivers are aware of hazards before they actually see them.
Now that sensors like radar and cameras with intelligent object detection are small enough to be hidden all over vehicles, many cars include hazard detection and warning systems where dashboard lights and generic sound effects alert drivers to passing vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. But most of the time those warnings are vague, causing a driver to have to instantly check all their mirrors and blind spots to determine exactly where the hazard outside their vehicle may be.
Engineers at Ford in Europe want to take this safety feature one step further. They’re now testing something they call Directional Audio Alert which adds two important pieces of information. First, the system determines where the hazard actually is in relation to the vehicle, and audio alerts are then routed to a specific speaker so that where the driver hears it coming from indicates where the hazard actually is. Unless you’re spending half a million dollars on a sports car where every ounce of weight reduction is crucial to its performance, even a cheap sedan has speakers for the stereo located all the way around the vehicle’s interior, allowing the sounds to be given some directionality.
Second, instead of a generic chime, the vehicle’s sensors and cameras would intelligently determine what the hazard is, and play an appropriate sound effect, like the honk of a car horn, the chime of a bicycle’s bell, or the sound of footsteps. In tests involving a driving simulator, drivers were able to instantly identify the type and location of a hazard 74 percent of the time. The engineers hope to improve the efficacy of Directional Audio Alerts even further through the use of spatial sound tricks that help better position the alert sounds in 3D space. Not only would a driver know that a bicycle was pulling up alongside the right side of their vehicle, but the 3D sounds would also help let them know how quickly the cyclist was riding by, thus allowing them to react accordingly before ever actually seeing them.