Concert of Claxons

It goes off once a month (here in the Netherlands at 12:00 noon on each first Monday), sounding from somewhere in the distance. If we even happen to notice it, we pause a moment to remind ourselves that “it’s just that time of month” – no need to go take cover against some air attack or to try to find the nearest gasmask. It’s the air raid (or public emergency) siren, and it still makes up one element of the home-town environment for many of us. And in truth, it should not be retired any time soon, since we all still need it: launchable nuclear arsenals deployed within long-range bombers and on intercontinental ballistic missiles remain in the armories of a number of the world’s military powers, and then in addition few places in this world can count themselves immune from the possibility of devastating floods and/or earthquakes.

In actuality, though, these siren-systems are under threat: they cost too much, supposedly hundreds of millions of euros to maintain nationally. That datum comes from a recent examination of this issue in the Frankfurter Rundschau by Roland Knauer. Public authorities are increasingly shutting them down, in favor of setting up alternate warning systems for fire and civil defense officials employing TV, radio, and SMS.

But you can likely rather quickly grasp the problem with this: for extended hours each day (usually roughly corresponding to what we call “night”) most of us prefer to be unconscious and blissfully out of reach of any TV, radio, or SMS message. Murphy’s Law, on the other hand, suggests that if/when the next disaster comes, it will more than likely hit during precisely such a period.

Not to worry: Knauer’s article is all about another solution that the famous Fraunhofer Research Institute in Germany has come up with. His title hints at it: Alarm thanks to horn-concert. You may be soundly asleep at 3:00 in the morning, but it’s a pretty sure bet that you’ll nonetheless hear a warning about incoming enemy missiles, or floodwaters, if all-of-a-sudden the cars parked outside start blasting their horns in unison.

This isn’t technically possible right now. (“Thank God!” I hear some of you exclaim.) But what is going to make it feasible within the next few years, at least in Europe, is the “eCall” technology that the European Commission has decreed be installed in every car sold after September, 2010. “eCall” was originally designed to send out automatically an emergency message, complete with GPS location-coordinates, whenever there’s an accident. This means rescue services can be dispatched precisely to the trouble-spot in short order, whether the driver(s) of the vehicle(s) in question even remain(s) conscious or not. The system can also be further modified to enable public authorities, in effect, to send an emergency message to each car, instructing it to honk its horn. (Knauer adds here “naturally only if the motor is shut down.” I suppose the logic here is that you don’t want the active driver of a vehicle startled by the sudden, autonomous sounding of that vehicle’s horn.)

So far this proposal is but a twinkle in some engineer’s eye at the Fraunhofer Institute. But calculations also indicate that only 14% of a given population of autos need to deploy this emergency feature for it to be effective and that, if approved, implementation should take only two-to-four years (presumably after “eCall” becomes mandatory in new EU cars).

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