Sonic
Movement

It is fair to say that humanity has an issue with the topic of the future. That sometimes, the tension between what is coming and what it replaces, simply overwhelms us. The history of cars is full of examples about this. My favourite one is actually one of the earliest ones. In 1899, the Horsey Horseless was designed under the goal of satisfying those who didn’t quite feel ready for the transition between the millenary aesthetic of the horse and a box with wheels.

In 2009, the American Foundation for the Blind urged President Obama to invest in a study that would address safety concerns for the interaction between electric vehicles and vulnerable road user groups, such as the visually impaired, the elder, runners, cyclists and urban fauna. The problem is simple: petrol cars make noise because their fuel explodes inside their engine. Electric cars work as a computer. The results, which were published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), established that a pedestrian is 37% more likely to be hit by an electric car, than by a petrol car. The probability raises to 66% for those who travel by bicycle. In 2010, the US Congress voted a law that will require electric and hybrid vehicles to include pedestrian warning sounds. 

This has sparked a conversation that reminds me a lot of the, rather comical, Horsey Horseless: Audi has said the car of the future should sound like a space ship. Nissan has started a collaboration with a special-effects studio in Hollywood and those car brands associated with the classic sounds of 8 cylinder engines, like Ferrari, are looking for a way to replicate the world-known noise. There are even some who say electric cars should sound like a Formula One.

That´s why we started Sonic Movement, a collaboration between artists, designers, psychoacoustic researchers and software engineers. To explore the acoustic future of the automobile and provoke dialogue around a question that will affect the life of millions of people around the world. Because we couldn't just let the car of the future have a ringtone that is the equivalent of a dead horse hanging from the front of your car. 

The first decades of the Twentieth Century saw our cities leave the horse behind and become saturated with a cacophony of explosive sounds. In New York, the growing number of articles, organisations and demonstrations that criticised the noise of cars pushed Shirley Wynne, then Health Commissioner, to create a research group that would reduce acoustic pollution. Formed by a group of science men who, in my opinion, have a suspicious resemblance with Pink Panther’s Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the Noise Abatement Commission began working in 1929. Their goal: to study the sonic landscape and develop public policy to protect the health of urban citizens, not only in New York, but worldwide.

According to reports published by The New York Times in 1929, the group of experts travelled around the city throughout the course of a year. They had a truck that incorporated state of the art devices to measure sonic pollution around construction areas, the newly built elevated train and the recently conceived concept of traffic jams. Sadly, the project is considered to have failed for its results delivered, instead of a strategic solution, a report that simply concluded: “A Bengal tiger could roar indefinitely in our city, without attracting the auditory attention of passers-by.”

The already alarming situation only got worse when the industrialisation process that followed the First World War kicked in, shifting the economical focus from the production of weapons to that of domestic products. The financial dependance governments had on the manufacturing industry meant strategic alliances were made. And urban planners, such as Robert Moses, who glorified the automobile as a symbol of progress and modernisation, designed our cities with the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the millions of cars the automotive industry needed to commercialise.

Today, we know that noise is not the sound the progress. In fact, we know that 1 out of 50 cases of cardiac arrest is related to urban sonic pollution, mainly caused by the automobile. And that the World Health Organisation considers this problem to be the second cause of disease in metropolitan zones. It was too easy for us to glorify the electric car as a hero that would come and rescue our cities from its predecessor, to fall for the promise of no more fumes and no more noise. But the inconvenient lethality of its silence stands in front of us with a riddle that will define the future of urban life. How should a car that has no sound, sound?

In order to keep the vehicle silent by default, our collaboration with Sonic Art duo Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst proposes a system that will, through directional speakers, communicate only with pedestrians detected by the vehicle´s radar, without shooting sound towards those who are not within the risk zone. At the same time, we´re interested in how the sound that will be used for this interaction should not impose itself as a foreign element to the environment, but instead blend with it. Thats why the project, which was presented as an audio-visual installation at the Frankfurt Motorshow in 2013, proposes the idea of mirroring the local sonic conditions, with a simple change of frequency. So the pedestrian-at-risk can detect it without being bothered by an intrusive sound.

I like to think that the car of the future can have a sonic personality that is unique to the moment it exists in. An acoustic emission that is not designed by someone who likes car engine noises, but produced instead from the weather, the people and other local conditions around it. I´m excited to think that when a vehicle considers its environment as a parametric reference for its sonic emissions, the traffic jam of the future might turn into an act of symphony. But what truly blows me away, is to think about how the intersection of cars and information could, in the future, open our senses to the city, allowing us to feel it like we've never done before. 

In 1899, a young Claude Debussy walked the hallways of the Galerie Des Machines, at the Paris World Fair, and coined the phrase: "The century of aeroplanes deserves its own music. As there are no precedents, I must create anew". In 1980, Luis Barragan used his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Price as an opportunity to condemn architecture´s lack of astonishment, serenity, intimacy and fascination. Not so long ago, I heard Leonard Cohen say that he composes his music thinking of someone who, in the solitude of midnight, crosses Los Angeles at the wheel of a car.

Maybe the century of electric moblity deserves its own symphony. Maybe we can use this moment of uncertainty as an opportunity to redefine the acoustic landscape of our cities and invoke, through your journeys, the feeling of charm and fascination. Maybe we’ll find the way for symphonies to emerge out of the interaction between our movement and the city that surrounds us.

by Fernando Ocaña