Nissan Turns Up the Volume on Electrics

Oct 01, 2009

Electric and hybrid vehicles are often praised for making very little noise on the road.  But now some groups, including advocates for blind pedestrians, are claiming that the lack of significant engine noise is dangerous to those who rely on it to notice approaching cars.


To address these concerns and rectify the problem, Japanese and American transportation agencies may soon mandate artificial engine noises for electric and hybrid cars.  Now automakers that produce the offending vehicles must decide what an electric car should sound like.


“We fought for so long to get rid of that noisy engine sound,” said Toshiyuki Tabata, an auto engineer and Nissan’s noise and vibration expert. “With electric cars, we took a completely different approach and listened to composers talk music theory.”  Three years ago, Tabata was asked to recreate the sound of a gas engine for just such a purpose, but says he was taken aback by the idea of looking back in time to a traditional sound.


“We decided that if were going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic,” Tabata said.


After consulting several Japanese film score composers, Tabata’s team of six members came up with a new engine sound: a high-pitched sound reminiscent of the flying cars portrayed in the movie Blade Runner.

“We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” Tabata said.  He also said that the system would operate until the vehicle reached 12 miles per hour, at which point tire noise and engagement of hybrid gasoline engines would be sufficient to warn any pedestrians.


While no serious injuries have been linked to the issue among blind pedestrians, advocates say that prevention is important.


“This isn’t just an issue for the blind,” said Suzuki Takayuki, a spokesman for the Japan Federation of the Blind. “There’s also a danger to children and the elderly.”


The plan to bring artificial noise to electric vehicles is also being considered in the United States, where advocacy groups have been in close contact with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to address the problem.  The NHTSA is analyzing its data and will issue a final report by January.


Even though regulators haven’t issued rules or guidelines, Nissan may equip its new Leaf electric with a sound system in time for the car’s introduction next year. The system will increase the car’s sticker price, said Tabata, while declining to provide an estimate. Nissan hasn’t announced the model’s pricing.  “We don’t want to destroy the brand of the electric car,” he said. “We want to have something that will enhance its image.”


Photo courtesy of VirtualErn under the Creative Commons License.