min read

Are you going tone deaf to car audio cues?

by Jan Panhoff , 21.07.2015

I notice from my own life how over-stimulated I am sometimes. Whether I'm bombarded with video messages on screens on a commuter train, or am subjected to ambient noise while in the city center, I'm constantly receiving messages about my environment.

It's no wonder that when I get into the relative serenity of my own car that I look forward to unwinding, relaxing, and letting down my guard. (At least for a little while, until it's time to crank the music.)

But sometimes when I'm in my car, I'm kept busy trying to place various noises - sometimes beeps, sometimes buzzes, sometimes alarm tones. I must ask myself which one was that and what do I do now?

Well, the noises all come from audio feedback systems in cars, such as entertainment or driver assistance systems. When you have multiple assistance systems, you have multiple feedback.

I'll get back to my own experience, but first I want to tell you more about the UX study that we at GfK conducted recently. We surveyed global car manufacturers about human machine interfaces (HMI) in different car models ranging from the compact to the luxury segment. We learned, among other things, that users are looking for flexibility and easiness in operating information systems.

Study basics

Let's start with the basics to set the stage. We found that user experience (UX) scores rose with increases in the car model year.


We also saw that young drivers and tech enthusiasts tend to have higher user experience scores.


These are some of the more "expected" findings of our study.

Looking forward

The "unexpected" part is what comes in addition to understanding the audience and the types of cars that provide the best user experiences. For instance, our study also showed which features consumers want from car manufacturers moving forward.

These include a tablet PC as a full replacement for a built-in infotainment system, and gesture control, among other features.


Now, back to my own experience with audio cues, before we move to the things we learned in a recent connected car study. From the user experience test I mentioned, I saw that due to the large number of assistance systems, drivers were overburdened with a wide range of audio signals - in many cases without any supporting visual cues.

Take the automated parking assistants as an example. Most drivers were unwilling to rely solely on the system and the pictures in the display.

This was true even for drivers who had previous experience with similar systems before those used for the survey. People used the rear-view mirrors and some even turned around fully to check the back of the car when parking.

But what if someone ignores the Central Information Display (CID) and doesn't understand what the "bing" tone means? Several times during the study, GfK moderators had to directly intervene and tell the drivers to brake to prevent the car from crashing!


My conclusion is that this type of audio and visual feedback has clearly reached its limits, if the driver cannot pay attention anymore and runs the risk of crashing the car because he or she didn't know what the signal meant. It's like having gone tone deaf to the cues.

Therefore, I say car makers should reconsider their approach and use natural language cues like the word "STOP" if an accident is imminent. This could apply to audio feedback for other advanced driver assistance systems as well, such as emergency braking systems which are only rarely if ever activated.

Car makers are on the right track: Our data showed that overall, drivers are satisfied with their infotainment systems’ look, feel and sound (a score of 4.5 in total), however, the products lack personal engagement and inspirational motives.

For OEMs, this means they can differentiate among themselves by focusing and boosting user-oriented qualities(such as product fit and inspiration).

Connected Car

Now, for the connected car. What does that have to do with audio cues?

Well, for one, in-car information and entertainment systems are a basis of the connected car - and it is these very systems that are often outfitted with peep tones.

A GfK Connected Car study conducted in six countries showed that drivers see connected cars that provide data, entertainment, and life management as a viable option, and they are intrigued by the idea of a car knowing a person's entertainment preferences.

Indeed, when it comes to positive emotions related to connected car features, entertainment had the highest positive emotional reaction.


Now, let's see if we can get that kind of positive reaction to all the peep tones coming at us inside our vehicles - or find a different way to alert drivers when needed.

Background connected car concepts

We asked consumers to evaluate seven connected car concepts.

  • Ultra Safe, a car that makes driving as safe as possible Connectivity with other cars, ensures you are alerted to upcoming problems such as accidents or heavy traffic.  Sensors in the car will pick-up if you are not alert. Connectivity helps you locate parking spots and the car also parks itself.
  • Data Tracker, a car that tracks usage, runs diagnostics, checks repair costs and automatically records accident data
  • Entertainment, a car that knows your entertainment preferences
  • Life Manager, a car that communicates with other connected devices in your home
  • Home To Destination, not a car but a travel solution. This app will take complete responsibility for a trip, identifying the best transport solution
  • Self-Sufficient, a strong but light electric car
  • Autonomous Driving, a car that drives completely autonomously.

About the UX survey

The UX Score is based on a ten-question survey administered after a user has interacted with a product. The UX Score provides a measure that can be used to track experiences over time, better understand product loyalty or market share, or compare HMIs.

GfK’s Connected Car Report:

Download our free preview report or get the full insights in our global report, which is available to purchase now. It contains detailed market-by-market analysis and brand specific insight. For your definitive guide to the road ahead or any further information, contact us.

Get more insights

Jan M. Panhoff is Senior Consultant of User Experience at GfK in Germany. To gain the full insights and benefits from our detailed studies contact us.

For more about our offerings, visit our Automotive and User Experience pages

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