Navigant Research Blog

The Silence of the Cams

Richard Martin — September 19, 2011

Starting in 2016, makers of electric and hybrid vehicles will be required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make sure that their cars make some noise—specifically, some kind of sound at low speeds that will warn pedestrians an EV is coming. An NHTSA study has found rates of accidents involving pedestrians up to 40% higher than conventional internal-combustion engines.

This gives rise to all sorts of possibilities. Already, the HALOsonic project, a collaboration between sound-system maker Harmon and Lotus Engineering, has enlisted well-known record producer Steve Levine (whose main claim to fame is that he produced—“perpetrated” might be a better term—the first three Culture Club albums) to develop both interior and exterior sounds for EVs.

Visually impaired Nino Pacini, one of the leaders of Nissan’s soundscape project for the Leaf, insists that EVs should sound like, well, cars: “We’ve had the sound of an internal combustion engine for 100 years,” Pacini told The Wall Street Journal. “And it’s fine.”

That seems woefully unimaginative. As you might expect from a man with experience working with both Boy George and Mötörhead, Levine spots a musical marketing opportunity: “Tools could be available so that the manufacturer or dealer could customize the sounds, and customers could have some input themselves,” he told The Engineer magazine. “Maybe there’ll be a market in swapping customization.”

Why not? Maybe you want your Prius to sound like a Porsche Boxster. Maybe you want your minivan to pump out “Ride of the Valkyries” as you back out of your parking space at the soccer field. Maybe the roar of the space shuttle launching is the perfect fit for your hybrid Highlander. Ford has already enabled consumers to vote on which of four sounds—ranging from a muffled jet engine taking off to a low-pitched slide whistle—the Focus should use. With more than 5 million plug-in EVs on the road by 2017, according to Pike Research’s most recent EV market forecast, the question of EV sounds is non-trivial.

This is not an official Pike Research forecast, but I’d be willing to bet there’ll be a multi-million-dollar market in ringtone-style car sounds within five years. Call them runtones.

2 Responses to “The Silence of the Cams”

  1. John V says:

    The NHTSA draft regulations are very specific: The noise provided by automakers (which must be tamperproof) cannot sound like sirens, chimes, bells, horns or music. Also excluded from consideration is ambient background noise, like waves, animals, insects or running water.

    See more here:

  2. shecky vegas says:

    How about a sound that goes “Get the hell out of the way, meatball!!!”

    This whole legislation of sound is a pain in the butt. One of the advantages of EV tech IS that it makes no sound. That’s one of its selling points. It needs to be the responsibility of the driver to make sure (s)he’s not running down all the blind people who just litter our cross streets like so many Starbucks.

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