Trapped in rush hour traffic, there aren't many ways to communicate with other drivers—the horn, an angry gesture—and most don't tend to foster positive feelings. It's even harder to communicate when it's dark and you can't see faces.
That's what made a group of L.A. drivers design a road rage antidote: When pleased with the behavior of another car, a driver can push a button on a gadget called MotorMood and light up a simple smiley face in his or her rear window.
"I have spent countless months of my life stuck in traffic," says MotorMood inventor Jesse Kramer. "The dehumanizing effect you can sometimes feel while driving was always at the top of my mind. One day it occurred to me that if people were able communicate in even the smallest way, the situation would be greatly improved."
Each time someone thanks another driver with the gadget—for letting them merge, for example—the designers think the effect will cascade and multiply through traffic. "We believe positive emotions are contagious," Kramer says. "After seeing the face, a driver's thought process of 'Who is this jerk in front of me?' becomes 'That's so nice/amazing/hilarious/cute,' and, as result, they themselves become more forgiving and gracious."
In an era when it's possible to video chat with someone 3,000 miles away but not to talk with someone in the next lane, the technology is one attempt to connect people. "Driving is one of the few times we're not able to effectively express ourselves," he says. "Adding to this, we're placed in an unnatural situation where we feel both vulnerable and invincible depending on circumstances. The combination of these factors can make otherwise nice people react to other drivers in hostile ways. The MotorMood face helps humanize cars."
Of course, it's easy to imagine that this could be taken in less positive directions, if people hack the gadget to broadcast different emoticons, or competitors decide to offer a mean-spirited option. The startup expects copycat products with negative messages, but is hoping that its device will offer enough features to keep drivers hooked. In the next version, they plan to offer a connected platform that also gives users data on driving, open the tech up to outside developers, and test out different displays.
As cars evolve into self-driving versions that have some built-in communication, the designers plan to change the gadget as well. "The software in self-driving cars will invisibly communicate with other cars so that they function in a seamless, coordinated way," says Kramer. "But the humans inside will still have the desire for communication and identity. Since they won't be manually driving, they'll have more freedom for self expression." Flirting with someone on the same commute, maybe?
The MotorMood is crowdfunding on Kickstarter.