Robotaxis Are Going to Sound Weird

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Zoox has designed a whole suite of sounds for its vehicles. The resulting audio palette sounds like the synthy soundtrack to an ’80s movie that’s been sliced ​​into tiny bits. The car’s interior aura is a slow ambient hum, like something you’d hear on  the chill-out radio station Hearts of Space. The idea is to make the experience of being a passenger feel peaceful.

The car’s interior “aura” sound is peaceful and relaxing. (Courtesy of Zoox)

“I like the psychological aspect of sound,” says Jeremy Yang, Zoox’s lead sound designer. “Where you can kind of make someone feel something without them really thinking about it consciously.”

Yang is a classically trained musician who has worked for a variety of corporate clients. Among them: Skype, where he refreshed the primary notification sound for Skype for Business, and Tinder, where he created the infamous swishy-clicky trill that is the sound of the app’s “Match” notification. Working with Zoox has been a different exercise, because the sounds in its robotaxis need to convey a variety of messages with increasing levels of urgency.

If somebody is going to spend much time in an autonomous vehicle, the sounds have to be gentle enough to keep from becoming irritating on long rides, yet firm enough to cajole those who drunkenly stumble into the robocar into putting on their seat belt.

“It’s a new thing,” Yang says. “Humans aren’t very used to communicating with robots on the street.”

Not that sound can communicate everything. Zoox says it is still working to build an experience that works for deaf or hard-of-hearing riders and doesn’t rely on audio cues. The company is also still developing sounds for when something goes wrong, like an accident, but it hasn’t implemented them yet. If there’s an emergency, the rider can tap on the seatback touchscreen to contact support staff via a voice call or an SMS text chat.

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