Do Plug-In Cars Need Extra Noise?

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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