The sound of the future

Quiet electric cars have to sound like something. So what should that be? Here, Nissan Motor's workers install a charger into a Leaf electric vehicle on the assembly line at the company's Oppama plant in Yokosuka.

Kai Ryssdal: The European Commission has some new guidelines out for -- and this is a quote -- "the approved sound levels of motor vechicles."

It sounds, and is, deadly dull. Until you get to Page 78, where it just gets weird.

The guidelines spell out the sounds that electric vehicles shouldn't make. Marketplace's Adriene Hill explains.

Adriene Hill: Electric vehicles and hybrids need to sound like something because:

Carroll Lachnit: They actually pose a danger to pedestrians.

Carroll Lachnit is features editor at Edmunds.com. She says hybrids hurt pedestrians more often than gas cars because they are so quiet. So U.S. carmakers are working on sounds that’ll be required in the next few years.

Lachnit: They all to me sound like we’re leaving the starport Galactica and heading out for outer space. They’re all sort of like PSSHUWUUU.

But when your car sound can be anything, why not think big? I call up Consumer Reports automotive editor Rick Paul for his take on a couple sounds. Imagine, you’re walking in a crosswalk and up rolls a car that sounds like--


Rick Paul: This wouldn’t seem unusual in my neighborhood…because there’s dogs everywhere you walk.

OK, fair enough. How about a classic?

"Little Red Corvette"

Paul: I guess it would depend if you are a Prince fan or not. It would certainly get your attention.

Maybe something more subtle?


Paul: Crickets. I guess I’d either think the 2012 prophecy was coming true and these were the locusts coming or else it’d put me into a meditative state.

Picky, picky. Paul says the ideal sound is one that’s high-tech, but not scary, low volume, steady.

I know exactly the one.

Marketplace gong

Hill: What do you think?

Paul: I think that’s perfect.

Carmakers and European commissioners take note.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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Yeah, +1 what the commenters above said.

And if those blind people don't want to get run over, they better start looking before stepping in front of cars... Oh, wait.

What a horrible idea. The problem we have is that cars make too much noise. We have ordinances about how much noise cars make because young men tend to really like having their car makes lots of noise through any means possible.
On the campus where I work there are many electric cars that shuttle people around from building to building and I've never had one sneak up on me. They still make noise.
If somebody can't hear them it's because they have their ear buds in, and MP3 player turned up so loud (because they don't want to miss a single word from the Marketplace podcast), that they're making sure they don't hear anything but their MP3 player. So having the cars make more noise isn't going to get any more people to notice them.

Crickets = The sound of EV sales

Despite big tax crdits sales of the Leaf have been poor. Given the chance Adam Simith's Invisible Hands could take care of this none issue.

I believe people will want to customize the sound their car would make, at least choosing from a few preset sounds. With a little forethought and planning we could avoid complete cacophony. I suggest at least standardizing the "musical key" or palate of tones one could draw from. If you wanted a droning sound, a sweeping arpeggio, or musical "riff", it could at least be in a frequency which blended, rather than clashed with other car sounds. I imagine the highways of the not-so distant future could hum with a harmonic type of minimalist music rather than a dissonant blur of noises. Harmonic highways of the future... where even a traffic jam could offer a unique musical experience. Just throwing it in the hat.

wonderful! now we're adding to the noise pollution to absolve people from paying attention and being alert while walking down the street. Oh, I forgot, they're texting!! Even so, an appropriately used horn is all that is really necessary. Is it not enough we're subjected to a cacophony of cutsie cell phone rings from everyone in the modern world?

We are going to produce noise pollution, because humans can't learn to look both ways! This is absurd! The silent vehicle is a beautiful invention and we're throwing it away!

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