June 17, 2009


They started about a month ago. On the morning of our drive to Paris, I asked my wife to take the wheel first so I could continue dozing in the passenger seat. She agreed, so I buckled-up, stuffed her handbag in the glove box before closing my eyes. We had traveled no more than few tens of kilometers, when we heard it first. Three long and distinct beeps, which sounded like they were either emitting out of the car’s dashboard or via the side-speakers. They woke me up. Unable to comprehend, she was looking equally stunned. It was the last thing we wanted on a long drive, which we had just begun.

Now beeps are not entirely alien to us. In fact, we’re familiar with several types related to the following:

  1. Fuel volume sliding to reserve.
  2. Snow on tracks.
  3. Key in ignition warning when the driver’s side door is open.
  4. Open doors.
  5. Presence of traffic cameras, together with speed-limit (audio-visual) warnings. This one is emitted from our portable GPS navigator.

And yet, the sounds we heard matched none of these. We kept an eye on the on-board console for visual warning signs — there were none. We stopped at a gas station near the Belgian border and called Honda — hoping they’d give us clues to our problem. They were surprised and said we were the first customers to report such a thing. They did, however, reassure us by saying, “all warnings should and will be accompanied by visual indications on the car’s computer console.” We were, nevertheless, concerned and presumed it was to do with something mechanical, which, we reasoned, might not be wired to the console.

The beeps were persistent. She forced me back in the driver’s seat when she couldn’t take it anymore. Our other hunch — we thought our over-stuffed glove box could possibly have upset the passenger-side airbag. We varied driving speed, changed radio settings to turn traffic announcements off, toggled the stereo, the auto-wiper system, the air-vent in the passenger glove box, et al., to see if we could determine the event that could be triggering these sounds. Nothing. We even made an unscheduled stop at a Honda service station in Ghent to have it examined. The only guy behind desk on the weekend could not find anything unusual.

When the logic fails, they say, reasoning kicks in. And so we reasoned may be it wasn’t so bad, else the console would’ve shown something. And so we turned the radio a few decibels louder, and drove. At Noyelles-Godault, our first stopover, we searched the internet from our hotel for three beeps + civic. But all we found were random reports from owners of various cars — including Honda. It made no sense. The beeps were like an unwanted jingle. However, nothing broke, everything worked, and we did indeed return home without an incident four days later. Last week, I took the car to the garage. That Honda did not find a malfunction wasn’t unsurprising either, given their feedback earlier.

Then, yesterday, when she and I were returning in Aygo, our other car, and we heard those beeps again! We looked around, and sure enough, it was Tomtom Go 910, our portable GPS navigator, which was the only other thing common on that trip!

When I updated the device the night before our trip, it turns out, the update added new features unbeknown to me. One of the many new features included a safety warning system — via beeps! Much to our dismay, it kept going-off throughout our trip; and all this time we thought there was something wrong with our car!1

So, as you can see, it does not take much to scare drivers these days. A single update to oft-used car devices like the GPS navigator2, and the practical joke is automatically turned on.

  1. The other reason we didn’t suspect the GPS navigator was because its speed camera beep is very different. Also, Tomtom’s speaker is at back of the device — facing the windshield. The beeps, I suspect, were bouncing off the windshield, thus creating a stereo effect, as if to emit from the car’s side tweet speakers. 

  2. With no notification, log of feature changes, fixes or updates to the user.