You likely have the process of ride-sharing down pat: hail a taxi or Uber, hop in the backseat, chat with the driver, and be on your way. If anything goes awry, the driver can provide updates or help. They might even engage you in conversation.
However, all of this human interaction goes out the window when your driver is a robot.
Why? Because Robotaxis are on the horizon, whether we like it or not. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, and Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, have been testing their autonomous cars in San Francisco for years, and they have expanded their programs to other cities. Zoox, the Amazon-owned company that designs boxy autonomous vans, has also conducted its own vehicle tests on public roads. If all goes well with legal hurdles, it may be possible to hail a robotaxi through an app in just a year or two.
The prospect of riding in a self-driving taxi is certainly attractive - no more obligatory conversations or uncomfortable chitchat. Simply input your destination and let the robot do the driving while you relax, doze off, or scroll through social media. However, if passengers become too detached, the robotaxi must have a method of ensuring their alertness.
A potential solution to this issue is through the use of sound. To prevent passengers from disengaging completely during the ride, robotaxis use various sounds to guide them and ensure their safety. These sounds are similar to those found in traditional cars, such as alerts for open doors or reminders to fasten seat belts, as well as notifications about any changes to the route. However, the challenge lies in creating sounds that are just as effective in communicating information as a human would be able to.
Zoox has created a comprehensive set of sounds specifically for its robovans. The resulting collection of sounds resembles the synth-heavy score of an 80s movie that has been fragmented into tiny pieces. The atmosphere inside the vehicle is a soft, tranquil hum similar to what you might hear on the soothing radio station Hearts of Space. The goal is to create a calming environment for passengers during their ride.
Zoox's lead sound designer, Jeremy Yang, appreciates the emotional impact of sound, noting that it can evoke feelings without the listener being consciously aware. Yang, a classically trained musician, has worked with various corporate clients, including Skype and Tinder, where he updated notification sounds for Skype for Business and designed the memorable sound for the "Match" notification on the dating app. However, creating sounds for Zoox's autonomous vehicles presented a unique challenge since the sounds must communicate various messages with varying levels of urgency. For someone who plans to spend a considerable amount of time in a driverless car, the sounds should strike a balance between being soothing enough to avoid causing annoyance during long journeys and assertive enough to prompt intoxicated passengers to fasten their seat belts.
While sound can communicate a lot in a robotaxi ride, it cannot do everything. Zoox acknowledges that it still needs to create an experience that caters to deaf or hard-of-hearing riders without relying on audio cues. The company is also in the process of developing sounds for emergency situations, such as accidents, but these have not been implemented yet.
Ultimately, people tend to be cautious around robots, particularly those that can transport us at high speeds. To make riders trust autonomous vehicles, the first priority is ensuring their safety. The sounds that Zoox has created, with their soothing melodies and subtle alerts, aim to achieve both practicality and a sense of comfort and confidence.