Horntones rock, but the law might say otherwise

The device allows drivers to upload music to be played outside their vehicles.

Kevin Behr

Three years ago, Mike Kosco bought a Hummer H1 with the Incredible Hulk airbrushed on the hood.

Kosco, a 43-year-old electrical engineering consultant in California, said both he and little kids thought the image was cool, but he got a lot of flak from teens.

“I was thinking, ‘You know, I wish I had a button I could push to make the thing growl,'” he said.

And the idea for Horntones was born.

In 2005, Kosco started Horntones Corp. based on his invention: the Horntones FX-550, a device that allows drivers to upload music and sound effects that can be played through an amplifier and speaker under the hood of vehicles.

Users must register an account with the company’s Web site to have access to convert sound files to those supported by the Horntones system, Kosco said.

After that, people can convert as many sound files as they want and transfer them from the Web to their on-dash device with a simple USB drive, he said.

The dashboard unit holds hundreds of sound files and has eight programmable preset buttons. The interface is wired to an amplifier and weatherproofed speakers located under the hood of the vehicle, Kosco said.

The tones are not limited in length either, he said. A Horntone could run for five seconds or the length of an entire song.

The whole system costs $249 or $499 for a “higher-end” system with a bigger amplifier and speaker, Kosco said.

But don’t empty the wallet yet.

Horntones isn’t available for purchase until April. The company began accepting preorders on its Web site Feb. 15.

“We’ve got hundreds of preorders already and distributors from 12 different countries wanting to carry the product,” Kosco said. “It’s amazing!”

But the luxury of yelling at someone to “Get out the way!” Ludacris-style might be a public safety hazard.

Steve Johnson, deputy chief of University police, said horns should be strictly used as a warning device.

“The temptation is there to show off your tune,” Johnson said. “But you start warning people with your music, you could be cited.”

Minnesota state law requires all vehicles to have an operational horn and explicitly prohibits the use of a horn when it is not used as a warning device.

Kosco said it was not his intent for people to use Horntones in a negative way.

“We by no means suggest you disconnect your horn and use this instead,” he said. “We recommend not using it while the vehicle is in motion.”

English senior Molly Graff said she thought the idea was “bizarre” but might be cool in the summer to listen to music outside your car.

“But then it would be a disturbance for people who don’t want to hear music outside someone’s car,” she said.

The city of Minneapolis agrees. An ordinance makes it a finable offense to exceed reasonable noise levels anywhere in the city. Punishment could be as severe as $700 or 90 days in jail.

The product packaging will include warnings about using the device in unacceptable ways, Kosco said.

He sees Horntones being used more as fun notification tools. For example, he said, when picking kids up for a school carpool, beeping a horn isn’t as attractive as playing a Scooby-Doo song.

Bill Garwood, 47, of St. Paul said customizable air horns have been available in the past. He said they were “highly irritating but cool.”

“They attract a lot of attention,” he said.

Garwood, who was preparing for a vendor show in Coffman Union supporting University research, said he probably wouldn’t buy the Horntones system.

“Not for 250 bucks,” he said. “I could find better things to spend my money on.”

Graff said she probably wouldn’t buy one either.

“It’d be hard for someone to spend that much money on something that is unnecessary,” she said.

Kosco said he has plans for future Horntones products that will complement the existing product, too.

“But those are under the hat right now,” he said.