Of Crickets and klaxons, Ford's sound science
Ford's research and development team includes engineers that use science to create warning sounds heard in Ford cars. Turns out, there's a reason techno and chirping crickets didn't make the cut.
Posted October 26, 2010
By SHAUN CONLIN, EVERGEEK MEDIA
While it might seem like any given new car comes replete with enough chimes, bells, chirps and alerts to scratch together a small mobile symphony, Ford stresses that the audible alerts on the new Ford cars are the product of science, not random samplings of audio whimsy.
As it happens, Ford has a team of engineers whose purpose is to dream up those ubiquitous sounds, from simple buckle-up reminders to high tech collision avoidance warnings, and subject them to a battery of tests to determine not only which warnings help drivers best react to possible dangers, but which ones work in harmony with other sounds in the vehicle. Ford emphasizes that it's a grueling process, one that involves a lot of complex scientific theory, listening clinics and on-road simulations to whittle down numerous sounds to the few that prove most effective.
Ford's research into the science of sound has revealed that certain types of alerts work better in certain situations, and that sound frequencies and cadence can affect driver response to them. And while the team considers a wide array of sounds, from draining a golf ball to the chirp of angry crickets (or a facsimile thereof, anyway), only a few make the final cut.
"Ford engineers spend a tremendous amount of time finding just the right sound for just the right situation to help customers react to potential dangers," said Paul Mascarenas (pictured), Ford vice president of engineering, Global Product Development. Mascarenas added that vehicle owners play a part in the science as well - in the form of customer feedback about pleasant, obnoxious or otherwise counter-productive sounds. "We don't want them to be annoyed and tune out important warnings," he explained.
In developing its safety sound cues, Ford relies on principles of music theory, mathematical analysis and psychoacoustics - the study of sound perception - to research properties such as pleasantness, loudness and sharpness. As a songwriter or composer might select from different types of sound to cast a specific mood, Ford sound technicians choose from a palette of psychoacoustic parameters to create the ideal acoustical and vibrational environment based on the following measures:
- Appropriate character for sounds and the response they evoke, such as the difference between a courtesy seat belt chime and a cross-traffic alert to prompt immediate action;
- Correct balance between road noise, engine noise and wind noise
- Minimal disturbing sound components such as whines, squeaks and rattles
- Mitigated sensory overload to reduce driver distraction
"Ford has an extensive process for developing sounds just as a conductor brings together different instruments to make a single sound," said Alex Petniunas, technical expert for Sound Quality at Ford. "But the goal of our sounds is not to entertain you; it's to help make sure you respond quickly to the driving environment that can change instantly."
Ford's research revealed that certain types of alerts work better in certain situations, and that sound frequencies and rhythms play an important role. For instance, in studies designed to see how proactive safety features can best alert drivers to potential accidents, drivers responded more rapidly to audible alerts that sound more authoritative, i.e. sound emitted in a rapid, staccato rhythm.
Test subjects also indicated a preference for a combination of audio alerts backed up by a visual warning. As a result, Ford now pairs audible alerts with visual cues for scenarios requiring a more urgent driver response, such as its collision warning with brake support system (now standard in Ford Taurus, Explorer and Edge).
Ford notes that the presence of other sounds is another important consideration, as when likes of the radio or other in-car signals that compete for the driver's attention. For proactive safety features that require the driver's immediate response, such as Ford's cross-traffic alert, the system actually silences the radio in order to guarantee instant communication with the driver (aw man, just when drums kick in, some dude tries to sideswipe me).
Ford uses a variety of methods to test the effectiveness of audio and visual components. To re-create the driving experience, for example, Ford pumps wind and road noise into cars isolated in a soundproof chamber while precision microphone mounted in dummies capture high-fidelity recordings of the alerts as a driver would hear them.
Not content with what dummies hear can't react to, Ford also conducts subjective evaluations at customer clinics with volunteers providing immediate feedback on the effectiveness of audio/visual combinations. In other "semantic differential" exercises, testers are asked to rate each sound with one of two contrasting adjectives, as in an "expensive" or "cheap" sound sample.
Many of the prevailing sounds incorporate a series of notes along the major scales, with intervals that are pleasing to the ear yet discernible enough to break through the ambient background of the car and other sounds competing for the driver's attention. Some sounds that do well in the consumer preference testing do not meet the standard for eliciting the proper driver response, such as the soft, electronic beat sound "Techno01," similar to club music around the world (or a ringtone variation thereof), which did well in the subjective studies but was not audible enough to cut through the car's background sounds.
Ford says its team draws inspiration from many sources and considers a wide array of sound options, many of which don't make the final cut. Some sounds that were considered but not adopted, such as a sound that mimicked the chirping of crickets, were too literal to be effective. Others couldn't overcome a generational divide, such as the "Youth Scratch" sound, created in the likeness of a DJ scratching a vinyl record. That appealed to younger drivers, but not to an older driver population.
Ford emphasizes that finding the right, universal sound, one that works for all drivers, is a challenging task that transcends geographic boundaries. Because sensory perception and preference varies around the globe, Ford also tests some sounds in different regions to develop uniform cues that work in its various consumer markets.
For example, Ford tested 24 sound options for its new global turn signal for Europe, North America, South America and Asia, and its sound engineers were able to determine the best modern-day version of Ye Olde click-clacking sound of a turn signal relay switch.
"There are both creative and technical elements in fine-tuning our sounds to get them exactly right," said Petniunas. "A key objective is identifying the kinds of warnings drivers will find both more effective and easier to understand so that safety features are used correctly and more frequently."
Sight and sound alerts are incorporated into many of Ford's new and newest cars with safety features such as BLIS (Blind Spot Information System) with cross-traffic alert, which identifies when a vehicle enters the defined blind spot zone and sounds an alert and also illuminates an indicator light on the corresponding sideview mirror; MyKey, which allows parents to limit vehicle's top speed and radio volume, much to the chagrin of teens not up on the whole safe driving and/or fuel efficiency thing; and Belt-Minder, a fasten-seat belt cue that chimes and flashes insistently should the initial gentle seat belt reminder go unheeded.