When the Music Comes

It sounds plausible that listening to music in the car improves the driver’s performance. But which kind of music is the right one? Most likely, IT experts are concerned with the question of how to help artificial intelligence in cars to make musical leaps.

Music lifts up your mood – as a driver, you are not supposed to hold your smartphone in your hand while listening to music.Photo: Fotolia - Jakob Lund

Music lifts up your mood – as a driver, you must not hold a smartphone in your hand while listening to music. Photo: Fotolia – Jakob Lund

For many drivers, listening to music in the car is as natural as brushing their teeth in the morning. Music gives goose bumps, stimulates and relaxes. Music promotes blood circulation, makes the heart beat faster and the brain work better. It’s obvious that while driving, music also has a positive influence on the driver’s performance at the wheel. This could be supported by the so-called Mozart Effect. This is based on the theory that classical music improves listeners’ spatial perception. Maybe there’s also the Helene Fischer Effect, the Metallica Effect or the Ed Sheeran Effect for car drivers? So just switch on the ignition and select your favourite station? If only it were that simple. Most of the time you have to fiddle around until the right frequency is set in the analogue FM radio. Better off are motorists who have the digital radio DAB+ on board, which according to the ideas of the EU Parliament will soon become compulsory equipment in new cars. The tangible advantage of digital radio technology is that it offers a wide range of stations, lots of special-interest channels, automatic station search and excellent sound quality.

Music streaming and playlists from the Internet outstrip the radio

However, it will probably be a few years before digital radio fully arrives on the scene. The glorious times in which radio was the only reception medium in the car are probably over. Automobile manufacturers such as Daimler and Ford have long forged partnerships with music streaming services to update their entertainment portfolios. The smartphone generation already has special listening habits in which the radio only plays second fiddle. A driver should not hold a smartphone in his hand to listen to music, of course, as the Hamm Higher Regional Court recently made clear. The versatile device can easily be connected to the radio via USB, AUX cable or Bluetooth to use the loudspeakers, though. In addition to streaming services, hundreds of playlists on the Internet provide enough food for every musical taste.

Music has a variety of effects on mood and driving style

So, turn up the speakers and off you go? In the interest of safety, that wouldn’t be a good idea. If the volume is far in the upper range, this can lead to an increased release of stress hormones, which extends the reaction time of the driver and thus increases the risk of an accident. In the 1990s, music psychologists at the Technical University of Dortmund discovered this exact effect on drivers in the driving simulator. In some cases, the braking distance of the test persons had increased by more than 15 meters at a speed of 100 km/h. In practice, this would have fatal consequences.

Music in the car, that much is certain today, can activate the driver and thus have a positive effect on driving performance. On another page is the question of whether this applies equally to every style of music? “Pop, rock, jazz and classical music can have a positive effect on the driving style. The effects depend on the current emotional state and the emotional relationship to the music you listen to,” says Thomas Wagner, traffic psychologist at DEKRA. As the expert explains, music can also have an unfavorable effect on driving performance. The sticking point is the driver’s attention. When the thoughts wander when listening to the favorite music, the driver has less mental capacity for information processing. When changing lanes, overtaking or in a tricky right-of-way situation, the driver may lack the little bit of attention that a risk-free driving process would require. Heavy metal or complicated jazz can have a similar effect on the driver. Even classical music is not always the best choice for relaxed driving. Especially songs with many highs, lows, frequent changes of volume and tempo can put a lot of strain on the human brain when driving a car.

René Turrekt has designed the compact SUV Volvo XC40 with a sound paint in the Swedish national colors. Photo: Volvo cars

René Turrekt has designed the compact SUV Volvo XC40 with a sound lacquer in the Swedish national colors. Photo: Volvo Cars

Assistance systems could determine the choice of music in the future

According to the musicological analysis “Music in the Car” presented three years ago by Allianz Insurance Austria, melodious mainstream pop is best suited as music while driving. The language of the lyrics therefore also plays a role. With songs in the native language, many drivers pay attention to the lyrics, which ties up mental resources. A foreign language, on the other hand, does not draw focus on the lyrics, but on the melody. The bottom line is that the music psychological question to this day is how the driver’s alertness and attention can be promoted in the best possible way in favor of driving ability. The commercial vehicle manufacturer Daimler was already on the trail of an answer ten years ago. Back then, the Swabians developed the “TopFit Truck” concept to optimize truck drivers’ attention and condition at their workplace. Music played a key role here. So just put on a cool rock song and the adrenaline immediately starts pulsing in your body and clears your view outside? Rather the opposite is the case. The research on which the TopFit project is based has shown that a tired driver first has to be woken up by lightly activating music. Only later can the activating effect be further increased.

The music in an autonomous car plays in a new dimension

It is quite possible that the next stage of digitized driving will incorporate such findings into the development of new assistance systems. A fatigue detection system could then, for example, automatically access the vehicle’s entertainment program or existing playlists in order to activate the driver with the right music. When artificial intelligence (AI) takes command of the highly automated or autonomous vehicle, physiological limitations of the driver no longer play a role. After all, the AI doesn’t care whether rock, pop or classical music is booming out of the speakers. This would also pave the way for a new dimension in car music. In the future, a 360-degree sound system with potent loudspeakers and a subwoofer in the trunk could become just as important as individual playlists. Music would also have potential for the driver’s self-portrayal. The most recent example of this is the Volvo XC40 compact SUV, designed by Osnabrück graffiti artist René Turrek with a sound lacquer in the Swedish colors. The special lacquer reacts on the basis of electromagnetic impulses to songs from the car radio and to external sound sources. In this way, the car lights up to the rhythm of the music. The light show itself can be activated and deactivated via an app.

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