Editorial: Automotive technology ... the sweet noise of traffic

Aside from emitting no pollution, electric and hybrid cars emit no noise, either, and that, in the opinion of safety experts, is a problem. Pedestrians can’t hear them coming. In one test, a hybrid operating on battery mode was inaudible to people until it was only seven feet away.

This has led to an automotive engineering subspecialty — making electric vehicles and hybrids noisy. The New York Times reports that the Fisker Karma, an $87,000 hybrid due to go on sale next year, will emit through speakers embedded in the bumpers what its inventor describes as “a cross between a starship and a Formula One car.” The sound of an un-muffled 800-horsepower race car bearing down on them will certainly alert people. It will also terrify them. As for the starship, we’re not sure what one sounds like.

The Times says that Nissan is consulting with the film industry on what sound its Leaf electric vehicle should make. The same noise as the flying saucer in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” complete with the five-note musical scale, might make a good start.

Some cars will likely come with systems that allow the drivers to customize the sound of their vehicles, rather like ring tones on cell phones. Or individual cars could have notes of different frequencies allowing traffic engineers to orchestrate the sound of traffic so that a particularly notorious bottleneck would entice, for example, Brahms’ “Lullaby” out of the angry motorists’ cars. It could work.

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