Ah, the irony. Unwanted traffic noise is a bane of modern existence. Countless engineers have spent entire careers laboring to reduce vehicle noises from engine, exhaust, tires and aerodynamic turbulence. Most drivers and passengers prefer quieter cars; for starters, it makes it easier to listen to music. Now, with the advent of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, we need to find a way to make cars noisier.
When new-fangled internal combustion cars first appeared on roads, some municipalities mandated that a man precede each car on foot, waving a red flag. That was meant to warn people (and horses) that a horseless carriage was approaching. Now, we have the opposite problem. At low speed, electrics and hybrids running on battery power produce almost no sound. While that silence may be golden for the driver, and hugely boost his eco-ego satisfaction that his non-combustion ride is saving the planet, it is less satisfying for a hear-impaired person, someone wearing earbuds, or anyone absorbed in a phone call that steps out between parked cars and into the path of the oncoming stealthy liability lawsuit.
To the dismay of ambulance chasers everywhere, the federal government will require that by the end of 2016, all electrics and hybrids emit a sound at low speed. That’s because one study showed that electrics and hybrids are injuring pedestrians and cyclists at twice the rate of traditional cars. Thus, car makers are searching for the answer to the question: what sound should a silent car make?
It would be fun to use creative sounds. But imagine your confusion if you heard the tweeting of a parakeet, and then were confronted by a speeding two-ton vehicle? Yes, it would probably be best to avoid fancy ringtones. Sorry, no sound of a horse’s hooves
Or Jetsons spaceship
Or a photon torpedo
Stick to a vehicle-type sound. For example, it would be cool if your Leaf sounded like a Ferrari F430:
or a Harley with straight pipes
In any case, even if an electric car isn’t in your future, the sound of them will be. Maybe use a clothes pin to put a playing card in a wheel’s spokes. Or else have drivers just crank up their stereos, especially the bass. If nothing else works, you could always hire a guy with a red flag.
Ken C. Pohlmann is well known as an audio educator, consultant, and author. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Principles of Digital Audio and Master Handbook of Acoustics.
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