Quietly Bad

One bit of tech news that hasn’t gotten as much attention as I expected is Bose’s announcement that they’ve come up with noise reduction technology for cars.

They’re not making the cars quieter. They’re reducing the amount of road noise inside the car. Yes, like noise-canceling headphones, only for an entire vehicle instead of one person’s ears.

This is, IMNSHO, a bad idea.

Maybe not as bad as electronic license plates or the no-pitch intentional walk. Not quite.

Look, I don’t fly without my headphones. They work brilliantly at filtering out continuous sounds–like the plane’s engines–and not quite as well on repetitious sounds–like the crying baby in the seat behind me. But you know who doesn’t wear noise-canceling headphones on a plane? The flight attendants and the flight deck crew. In other words, the people who are responsible for the safety and comfort of the passengers.

Because the technology isn’t perfect. It also partially eliminates conversation. It glitches occasionally, allowing the background noise to leak through. Those glitches are distracting, and the unintended reduction of non-continuous sounds is a potential safety concern.

Consider how this would apply in your car.

Will Bose’s technology filter or reduce the siren of the police car behind you? Will it make your navigator–human or GPS–quieter? Will it be smart enough to know that droning noise is your favorite bagpipe CD, or will it filter out part of your music? Except, of course, for the occasional glitch where it cuts out and lets through a sudden burst of B flat.

All that aside, even if the technology was perfect, reducing only road noise, without hiccups or glitches, it’s still a bad idea.

Road noise is one of the signals a driver uses to keep tabs on the state of the car and the road. The pitch is part of the feedback system that lets you hold a constant speed on the freeway (traffic permitting, of course). Sudden changes in the sound signal a change in the road surface, alerting you to the possibility of potholes or eroded asphalt.
Do we really want to increase driver distractions and decrease their awareness of what’s going on outside their cars?

Apparently we do. Bose’s announcement says the technology “is planned to be in production models by the end of 2021.” Given the lead time involved in automotive design, that means contracts have been signed and engineers are hard at work now.

I’d offer congratulations to Bose, but they probably wouldn’t hear me.

2 thoughts on “Quietly Bad

  1. VEry good post, although I’m wondering if it’s enough to cancel out police (or fire engine!) sireeens. Incidentally (and I’m giving away a secret): always sit in the first of the two emergency rows. Children not allowed, and there won’t be any behind you. In the case that you have to help kick the door out, I’m sure you’re capable and you’ll have 5 other passengers to help on your side.

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    • To be fair to Bose, the cancellation probably isn’t strong enough to completely wipe out sirens (or road noise, for that matter). But given how bad drivers have gotten about yielding right of way to emergency vehicles when they can hear the sirens, why make matters worse by making it easier for them to ignore the sound?

      And I don’t think you’re giving away a secret. I’ve noticed that the exit rows are filling up faster and faster.

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