Honk

Here’s what I want to know about driverless cars, and the future of the automobile in general: What are we going to do about the horn?

Headier questions will no doubt be answered first, as tends to be the case when we’re confronted with an idea that could radically change the way we do things (see: Jeff Bezos and his delivery drones). People understandably want to know what the regulatory framework will look like, how you stop autonomous vehicles from getting hacked, and who (what?) is liable for a driverless crash.

But the fate of the horn is also pretty important. It’s been with us since 1649, when Nuremberg watchmaker John Hautzsch debuted a horseless carriage that supposedly propelled itself using the same mechanics that move the hands of a watch. Capable of creeping along at one mile an hour, Hautzsch’s invention frequently saw its route blocked by curious crowds. According to Edgar B. Schieldrop’s The Highway, the newfangled carriage had two ways of dispersing pedestrians: an ornamental dragon head would spit water at them, and angel-shaped horns blared noise at them. Which means Hautzsch introduced not only the first car, but also the first car horn.

When the automobile began to challenge the horse-drawn carriage for command of the street, auto-opponents demanded that cars be outfitted with noisemakers for much the same reason that lepers were once required to shout “unclean” as they approached villages: Cars were prone to upsetting horses and endangering pedestrians. (The anti-car crowd had a point: 1921 saw 24 car-related fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the U.S.; 2001 had only 1.51 car-related fatalities per 100 million VMT*.) Thirty years ago, Eugene Garfield cataloged the historical warnings required of automobile operators in his brilliant essay, “The Tyranny of the Horn“:

One Massachusetts lawmaker proposed that all cars be equipped with a bell that would ring with each revolution of the wheels. Another suggested that motorists shoot Roman candles ahead to forewarn drivers of approaching horse-drawn vehicles. The Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania demanded adequate warning but added, “If a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile, the driver should take the machine apart and conceal the parts in the bushes.” 1

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  1. Am I wrong or didn’t The Onion just do something on car horns recently?

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