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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Car Sounds of the Future

Air Date: Week of

Nick Zacharov is head of Delta Consultancy's SenseLab (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

As electric cars gain traction, the world will become a quieter place. But silent vehicles pose a safety threat to pedestrians and cyclists. Host Steve Curwood finds out what the future electronic car might sound like.


CURWOOD: A bicycle needs a bell to warn others on the road because it’s so quiet, and as it turns out, electric cars and some hybrids might need something similar.
Now, a bell for a car seems, well, undignified and a constant horn is annoying, so that’s where Nick Zacharov comes in. He set up a computer at a green technology expo during the climate talks here in Copenhagen to poll people about what should be the sounds of the car of the future.
I asked Nick why electric cars need a special noise.

ZACHAROV: Well, the main issue is that under 25 kilometers an hour they are essentially silent vehicles to pedestrians and cyclists, and actually there’s a larger instance of accidents with hybrid cars at low speeds than with normal combustion engine. Because we expect a car to make a sound. So now we’re considering – we’ve been trying to raise the issue in the debate about what should an electric vehicle sound like in the future.
And we’ve set up a listening test with some different types of sounds to actually gauge consumer opinion about how an electric car should sound and what we should be designing for.

CURWOOD: All right, well can you show me what you’ve been working on?

ZACHAROV: Yeah, sure. What we have here is we have a number of sounds which have been designed by sound designers. I’ll go through, let’s say, some of the more irritating or alarming sounds…

CURWOOD: Okay, let’s start here with – this is your lowest-rated sound it looks like on your chart. You call it “Emission Free”. Can I take a listen?



CURWOOD: Kind of sounds like another planet.

ZACHAROV: Yeah, exactly. We might not want our cities populated with this sound. Uh, okay…


CURWOOD: Sounds like a submarine.

ZACHAROV: Exactly.

Nick Zacharov is head of Delta Consultancy's SenseLab (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

CURWOOD: So, now you’re going to take us to a few better things.

ZACHAROV: I think we’ll try and do that.


ZACHAROV: A bit more subtle – these are things we may have seen in movies with futuristic cars.

CURWOOD: Well, I think I like this a little bit more than the others that I’ve heard so far.

ZACHAROV: I wouldn’t disagree with you. And, as we see this is starting to get moderately reasonable scores, and also we have to look at the context it will be used in. So, a sound like that will be used outdoors where there is wind, so a sound like that might be very subtle, but it’s not going to be very audible.

CURWOOD: Well, look, Nick. You know, I can say this to you confidentially, one of the problems with an electric car is it has this image of, you know, kind of a neutered, nerdy, no-kind-of-fun thing.
And in America, at least, you know, we’ve been advertised to that it’s not just, excuse me, it’s not just your car, it’s your freedom!

ZACHAROV: We do see that they’re – that is the sort of image that the vehicles have mostly today, but we also see that they are some sports electric vehicles being developed. And these are actually very futuristic, very powerful, very and – in a way – I’m might say, macho. They’re giving us a strong and powerful message through their sound.


CURWOOD: Well, now that is rather loud tire noise or something.

ZACHAROV: Basically, yes.


ZACHAROV: There is a rhythmic pattern there. It is very subtle.
The next noise, which is the most preferred one, overall. And this study’s been done with 270 people, but yesterday when we actually looked at the data we have about 500 ratings now from the website.


ZACHAROV: The patterning is something we would pick up on very well. The brain is very skilled at finding patterns in sound.


CURWOOD: Why not just make it sound like a car?

ZACHAROV: Yeah, that is one of the options!


ZACHAROV: We can also think, that is that the message that an electric car wants to give? To pretend to be a combustion engine vehicle, or could we have something a bit more high-tech that gives actually a very positive feeling and a positive meaning, as well as adding the safety value.


WOMAN: You are exceeding the speed limit.

ZACHAROV: And there is a big debate: should they be silent, or not? We believe that form and function are important and the sound is an important safety matter.

CURWOOD: So, silence is golden, but…

ZACHAROV: Silence is golden, but so is safety.

CURWOOD: Nick Zacharov is with SenseLab, developing a sound for the electric car. Thanks so much, Nick!

ZACHAROV: Thank you.

Every day, precisely at noon, the Royal Danish Guard marches from their barracks to relieve the soldiers stationed at the Palace

CURWOOD: To vote on your favorite electric car sound, or even suggest one, go to our website LOE dot org.
Change has been the watchword here at the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Climate change, of course. Change in the way we use energy. Change in the way nations develop. But amid all this change we found one thing in Copenhagen that started in the 1600s and has remained constant over the centuries: the changing of the royal Danish guard.


CURWOOD: Precisely at noon, seven days a week, no matter what the weather, the Danish royal guard marches from barracks to palace – some things never change.




Electric Car Sound Online Poll



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