One day, drivers might download “vroomtones” for their cars, the way they download ringtones for cell phones today.
After years of complaints from blind pedestrians that ultra-quiet hybrid cars pose a safety threat, the auto industry is responding by producing on-board devices that emit sound. Nissan is considering using a high- pitched science fiction sound for its upcoming all-electric Nissan Leaf. The Fisker Karma luxury plug-in hybrid might use a sound halfway between a jet engine and an F1 racecar. And Volkswagen’s E-Up! concept car, described as “the Beetle for the 21st century,” might use the very 20th century sound of a common gas engine.
This is music to the ears of advocate organizations for blind people. In 2007, when hybrids starting taking off in the United States, The National Federation of the Blind called on automakers to set a minimum sound standard for hybrids. Earlier this year, The Japan Federation of the Blind submitted a request to Japan’s transportation ministry, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and the country’s carmakers to consider the issue. The ministry set up a committee that met in July and August, and will present recommendations by Dec. 31, according to Bloomberg.
Toshiyuki Tabata, Nissan’s noise and vibration expert, has been working on developing artificial car sounds for about three years. “We decided that if we’re going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic,” he told Bloomberg. “We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” said Tabata. The sound system would turn on automatically when the car starts and shut off when the vehicle reaches about 10 miles per hour. Nissan presented its sound system to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Sept. 3.
Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, reported that Toyota and Fujitsu Ten Ltd. will soon conduct its own experiment to try out various sounds to find “the right tune at the right volume so people are alerted but don’t find the sound annoying.” Japanese regulations say the sound can’t be mistaken for a horn. Toyota hybrids may begin using sound alert devices as soon as next year, and those cars might also include “radar” to recognize the presence of pedestrian.
Sensing a market opportunity, car electronics manufacturers are developing new noise devices. In 2008, Lotus, the British performance carmaker, unveiled a system dubbed “Safe and Sound,” which generates an artificial noise mimicking a gas-powered combustion engine. Tokyo-based Data System Co. currently makes a device selling for about $140 that emits 16 different sounds including a cat’s meow, a “boing,” and a human voice saying, “Excuse me.”