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The Green Life: What Should Electric Cars Sound Like?

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December 01, 2009

What Should Electric Cars Sound Like?

Woman.listening After years of trying make cars silent, the auto industry has the opposite problem – how to make whisper-quiet electric and hybrid vehicles noisier. Some are concerned that if pedestrians can’t hear the cars coming, more accidents will result.

There’s some truth to this. A government study suggests that during some low-speed maneuvers like backing up and turning, hybrids are more likely to have accidents with pedestrians than conventional cars. (At low speeds hybrids are almost silent; at higher speeds, when the gas engine kicks in, they’re about as noisy as any other car.)

Engineers for Nissan have addressed the noise issue by turning to the movies – the Nissan Leaf will reportedly sound like the flying cars in Blade Runner. The National Federation for the Blind has partnered with General Motors to figure out a safe level of sound for the company's electric and hybrid vehicles. Tesla, however, says it has no plans to add sounds to its electric Roadster.

We can imagine a future in which electric cars at low speeds play a line or two of the owner’s favorite song, similar to cell phone ringtones. Potential downsides: Imagine the cacophony on a busy city street -- and imagine Christmastime, when everyone's car would play "Jingle Bells" when backing up. Eek!

At any rate, we’re curious: if you were engineering a hybrid or electric car, what sound would it make?

-- Année Tousseau

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