Zzzzzap, Whrrrr, or Pshzzzzzz. How Should Electric Cars Sound?

Sci-fi film makers have for years had to solve a tricky problem: How should electric cars sound? Nissan's facing a similar problem for its real e-car, and turned back to Sci-fi--its Leaf EV will sound like those in Blade Runner.

Blade Runner and Leaf EVOver at AllCarsElectric they've got a post about this very issue, highlighting the work of Nissan's Toshiyuki Tabata. An engineer for many years concerned with suppressing the sounds Nissan's vehicles make, Tabata is now leading the team that's crafting the artificial sounds Nissan's future electric cars will make. The team decided that trying to recreate the sound of an internal combustion engine was crazy, despite Nissan's management steering them in this direction. I say hats-off to Tabata for making this very bold decision: "We decided that if we're going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we're going to make it beautiful and futuristic."

Instead of looking to the past of the automotive industry--not particularly identified with the making of beautiful sounds (though a Ferrari's purr is close)--Tabata looked to film scores, since the artists involved here were trying to craft attractive sounds. Eventually Tabata's team succeeded in producing a sound "closer to the world of art" and settled on high-pitched sounds not too dissimilar to the noises made by the flying Spinner cars in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. They won't be permanently emanating from the car though, only between 0 and 12 mph, at which point road and air turbulence noise become significant.

And if you're busy wondering what all the fuss is about electric cars and noise, then you'll need to know the entire electric car industry is deep in thought about the matter. Fisker has decided Karma drivers can select different sounds--one of which is half F1-car, half-jet engine. Chevy's still deciding how its Volt will sound. VW's E-up apparently sounds like a gasoline-engine, and there's even a patent for an electromechanical device to do it all automatically. Why all the effort? It's to address safety concerns.

Electric cars that use 100% electric motive power generate very little noise of their own--which is a good thing, as noise constitutes wasted energy. But lawmakers and road-safety advocates are concerned that e-vehicles will thus pose a danger to pedestrians and other road users, used to checking for the sound of an oncoming vehicle before crossing the road. While you could argue that people should really look before crossing, then these same advocates say, "Ah, but what about blind people?"

While the point is fairly made, and the safety of the vision-impaired is paramount, it does smack of a nannyish approach. Bicycles can move faster than 12 mph and do so pretty silently--are we suggesting these should emanate zapping noises too? There's also a lesson from history that highlights the strangeness of this thinking: In 1865 the U.K. passed a new Locomotives Act which required all road-going self-propelled vehicles to be proceeded by a man walking 60 yards ahead with a red flag or lantern to warn pedestrians and horse-riders of the oncoming danger. Its requirements were lessened in 1878, though vehicles weren't permitted to make smoke or steam for fear of scaring horses. It wasn't repealed until 1896.

Personally I think artificial electric car noises won't be in our future for long. Once we're all used to the idea of the silent vehicle we won't need sounds. And I love the idea of significantly reduced noise pollution from the streets outside all our homes. Saying this, however, I'll admit I wish Nissan's Tabata had skipped Blade Runner and gone for Forbidden Planet instead--it'd be much more fun if our cars sounded like Robbie The Robot's: (check out the clip from about 2:15 onwards)

[via AllCarsElectric]

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3 Comments

  • alyssa rk

    Anti-noise activists have weighed in. In an e-mail statement, Arline Bronzaft, chairwoman of the noise committee of the Council on the Environment of New York City, and Les Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, said that “individuals who have worked in the noise field for many years, hoping to lessen the din of our environment, because of the adverse impacts of noise on mental and physical health and well-being, must become part of research team working on such solutions.

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  • Sander Claassen

    Probably we all need to get used to silent cars in the beginning. For security reasons it will then be a good idea to let the cars make artificial noise. I foresee a whole market of downloadable car sounds, comparable with the current ring tones for mobile phones. One driver to the other, waiting for the same traffic light: 'Hey, that's a cool sound for your car! Where did you get it? Can you beam it to me?'

  • Cosmo Haun

    Ha! Its not nannyism. Come up here to Portland, land of Prius. Those things are everywhere, they're silent and they're always startling people in parking lots, biking, or just crossing a driveway. You think its safe and its like they materialize out of thin air. Finally, doesn't everyone want a car that sounds like an idling jet? I do.