Robotaxis is going to sound weird

Zoox has designed a whole range of sounds for its vehicles. The resulting audio palette sounds like the synthy soundtrack from an 1980s movie cut into little bits. The look of the car’s interior is a slow ambient hum, like something you’d hear on the chill-out radio station Hearts of space. The idea is to make a passenger’s experience feel peaceful.

The ‘aura’ sound in the interior of the car is peaceful and relaxing. (Thanks to Zoox)

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

Yang is a classically trained musician who has worked for various 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 was a different exercise, as the sounds in the robot axis have to convey different messages with increasing urgency.

If someone is going to be spending a lot of time in an autonomous vehicle, the sounds need to be quiet enough to avoid becoming annoying on long drives, but loud enough to persuade those stumbling drunk in the robocar to fasten their seatbelts.

“It’s something new,” Yang says. “People are not very used to interacting with robots on the street.”

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