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Summary:

For some, the silence of an electric vehicle is really cool, and for others, who worry about getting slammed in a cross walk by a silent, oncoming EV, it’s a safety problem. There’s a growing list of startups developing vehicle noise technology to address these concerns.

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The first thing everyone notices when they turn on an all-electric or hybrid vehicle is that nothing happens. Well, there’s no noise of an engine turning on like there is for a traditional car. For some that’s really cool, and for others, who worry about getting slammed in a cross walk by a silent, oncoming EV, it’s a safety problem. There’s a growing list of startups developing vehicle noise technology to address these concerns. That’s right; whooshes, beeps, and digital engine noises could be the new equivalent of the next hot cell phone ring tone.

The latest startup touting its vehicle audio tech is Danish ECTunes, which said today that it’s raised “millions of Danish Kroner” from investors Fond Energi Horsens. ECTunes bills its car audio tech as smarter than competing systems, because the noise is tied into the direction, speed and acceleration of a vehicle.

For example, when an EV with ECTunes-enabled backs up, a distinct sound is projected to the back of the car, and when the car is driving at low speeds another engine-type sound is projected to the front. When the car is driving fast enough, the sound stops as the natural wind and wheel noises are audible enough so that digital sounds aren’t needed, says the company (watch the video clip below). The company says directed sounds cuts down on any unnecessary noise pollution.

Another startup is three-year-old, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Enhanced Vehicle Acoustics, which was founded by Stanford researchers, and has a similar approach to ECTunes, with different audio noises for different states of driving. EVA’s PANDA external sound system was originally developed for the Toyota Prius, and the company has been seed-funded by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and other sources. The NFB has been a strong advocate of calling for audio noises as a standard for the new generation of EVs and hybrids.

Car companies have been considering their own options, too. Nissan has been testing an external sound system for the Nissan LEAF in Japan. Lotus Engineering, part of Lotus sports car, showed off a loudspeaker system a few years ago that recreates the engine sound of a regular car, and Toyota engineers reportedly have been working on a solution that would balance the needs of sight-impaired people with noise pollution. When we’ve test driven electric motorcycles and cars, all the auto makers have added in internal noises to the vehicle to alert the driver to when the vehicle has been turned on, but we haven’t seen many external sound systems being touted in the upcoming wave of EVs.

Will added external vehicle noise be the standard for the plug-in cars of the future? Perhaps in certain situations, like when backing up, as it would make sense to alert any pedestrian who happens to be walking in a parking lot. However, the car companies could just as easily add in these noises themselves, like Nissan is doing by experimenting with sound. It seems like the aftermarket for people to buy and install these types of external noise systems themselves would be relatively niche.

However, the one thing that I really like about the idea of added external car audio is the ability to add personalization to people’s cars. Vehicle noise could end up being similar to the way that ringtones surprised everyone years ago by morphing into a massive money-maker. The drive for more car personalization has spawned other entrepreneurs like the folks at Infectious, which make car decals. Who knows, cell phone personalization has been all the rage. Why not for our cars?

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  1. Interesting that people would be developing these kinds of solutions. My first thought was: aren’t these just adding to the all the noise pollution that we have? But at least Toyota is attempting to address that issue and there’s good reason to have them for sigh-impaired folks. Will be interesting to see whether these really catch-on like ringtones

  2. So, my next car could sound like the Jetsons’? I understand the concerns about (lack of) noise pollution, but I don’t see this turning out well. Do we really need more electronic devices spewing out annoying jingles? Why not devise some kind of proximity sensor that a person could wear, or could be at cross walks.

  3. A solution looking for a problem.

    Schools kids are taught to LOOK before stepping onto a road, not to rely on noise? Seems older people think it could never happen to them and become careless.

    If the argument turns to the 0.3% of the population who are legally blind, pass a law saying all blind people must wear day-glow safety vests when within 200m of a public road, so drivers are well aware they are disabled. Cheaper solution than fitting buzzers to cars owned by the 99.7% who aren’t blind.

    Hard to imagine human nature hasn’t eveloved beyond the infamous Locomotive Act of 1865 where a man with a red flag had to walk 50 m ahead of every vehicle powered by one of those new fangled internal combustion engines.

    Even more amazingly, it took a full 31 years before that stupid law was fully removed.

  4. I think we all should be happy that electric cars reduce noise
    pollution and are environmentally friendly and I really don’t
    understand why they should add a noise system! I think the more
    electric cars are on the road, the more people get used to it and to the fact that they have to remind looking around before crossing a street.

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