This photo by Pete Souza is in the public domain

by Jeanine Botta, MPH, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

A year ago I wrote an article that asked, Will pedestrian warning sounds be discernible? I raised concerns about the intended purpose of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010–-to protect blind and visually impaired pedestrians from electric cars whose approach was exquisitely quiet–-becoming lost in the midst of the broad and ever-increasing din of acoustic vehicle alerts. The issue is not as much about noise as it is about the meaning of sound.

At first it seemed auspicious when news of Tesla’s voluntary Boombox recall was announced on February 4, 2022. The recall was a response to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s claim that the feature poses a safety risk because it can render pedestrian warning sounds inaudible. Tesla’s Boombox feature introduced software that allows drivers to “turn their cars into a boombox” by emitting sound effects through external speakers intended for pedestrian warning sounds. Every news outlet covering the announcement stated simply that Boombox capability would be disabled, and repeated the Tesla CEO’s quip that NHTSA was the “fun police.”

But Boombox was not completely disabled. It was disabled in drive, neutral, and reverse modes, but not in park mode – and in park mode, drivers can emit the sounds as much and as often as they could in the disabled modes. In YouTube videos, using the feature while stopped or standing seems to be most popular anyway. Videos most often show drivers and passengers emitting sounds in the direction of unwitting pedestrians several feet away and laughing at the response.

Generations of vehicles have been manufactured in North America with horn sounds used as alerts for locking, remote start, and “panic alarm” and “car finding” technologies. More recently, automakers created capability for owners to “honk the horn from the breakfast table!” and “honk the horn from the movie theater!” using a smart phone or a smart watch-–from miles away, from state to state, and from one country to another. Although this broke some state laws and many local laws, and involved clear misuse of a safety device, a NHTSA vehicle safety research administrator told grassroots noise activists that this non-emergency use of horn sounds was not a safety issue, and that NHTSA would not investigate it.

All unnecessary vehicle sounds should be examined and addressed by auto regulators, but with Boombox there is a heightened level of concern with three issues-–all related to safety.

One concern is that Boombox encourages harassment. Two or more people sitting in a car emitting offensive sounds towards pedestrians and then laughing at the targets’ confusion may not end well. Most people will not respond in kind to those in the car-–especially if they know what the sound is. But if the sound targets someone who is emotionally unstable or disturbed enough to retaliate, it seems like a scenario best prevented. Even if lighthearted entertainment is the users’ intention, targets of the sounds may experience them as harassment or bullying.

Another issue occurred to me when I walked in front of a Tesla. A Boombox sound was emitted, and the car’s owner scolded his child who was in the front seat using the feature. What will happen if Boombox tempts children to gain access to unattended cars? Children know how to unlock a car with a remote, and it isn’t farfetched to consider this scenario as a potential risk.

Finally, why is NHTSA allowing Boombox to continue to function in park mode? Tesla openly markets Boombox as entertainment in its owner manual. Does sound-producing entertainment have a place in settings such as active parking lots where people and cars need to coexist safely? Allowing any amount of continued Boombox use means outdoor spaces where pedestrians and cars coexist will continue to pose a safety risk to blind pedestrians and others who can’t identify pedestrian warning signals.

And safety is the point. When President Obama signed the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act into law, it was the culmination of years of Herculean efforts by advocates for the blind. As it turned out, the pedestrian warning signals mandated by the Act stand to protect other groups, including young children, cyclists, and the many sighted pedestrians who reported “near miss” experiences involving quiet cars.

A dysfunctional automaker using the exterior speakers to create sonic clutter in parking lots and other shared spaces should not be something we contend with. Sound has meaning. Use of Boombox with external speakers intended for pedestrian warning signals is clear misuse of a safety device. NHTSA needs to issue a more thorough recall of Boombox. NHTSA ought to forget about personality, and remember the intention of the law and those it was meant to protect.

Further reading

Belling the Cat: The Long Road to the Passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act

Tesla Recall Disables Boombox Feature, Which Doesn’t Meet Pedestrian Safety Standards

Tesla owners can now change the car’s horn to sound like anything they want

The Anger of Tesla Fans Is Becoming a Problem