The Future of "Singing" Electric Cars

November 29, 2022

It’s official: the electric car is here to stay and bringing with it the promise of a brighter future. Indeed, the roads of tomorrow promise to be safe, environmentally friendly, and, as seen at this year’s Tokyo Motorshow, they could be full of singing cars. Over the past five years, the electric car has made the jump from futuristic toy to viable everyday transportation option. Charging stations are popping up around the country, prices have dropped to under $30,000, and many models now boast a range of over three-hundred miles between charges. Despite all the progress automakers have made in recent years, one problem still haunts the electric car, its noise; or rather the lack thereof.

Silent but Deadly

With no rumbling combustion engine to alert pedestrians to their presence, electric cars moving at low speeds can pose a real danger to those around them. A 2011 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that pedestrians were 37% more likely to get in an accident with a slow moving electric car than with a conventional vehicle. As the years passed and electric car sales continued to increase, the NHTSA sought to take matters into their own hands. So, in 2016, they introduced federal standards requiring electric vehicles moving under nineteen miles per hour to emit an audible noise intended to warn pedestrians of the car’s presence. The NHTSA report goes on to add that the new standard is projected to eliminate over two-thousand pedestrian injuries, indicating this rule is likely here to stay. However, the new standard does not specify what noise these slow-moving electric cars should make.

Looking Forward

The NHTSA’s lack of specification essentially enables car companies to sculpt the sound of the next generation of automobiles as they see fit. Some companies have opted to stick with the classic, rumbling sound of a traditional combustion engine, but as we saw in this year’s Tokyo Motorshow, companies are increasingly moving away from artificial engine noises and towards more unique, identifiable tones. In other words, the car of the future likely sings! Of course, it’s unlikely to hear Adele or Frank Ocean motoring their way down the highway anytime soon. What that noise will be, however, is still very much up for debate. Some companies have opted for a softer humming noise; some have gone the monotone beeping route, and a few have even experimented with a slightly melodic whirring sound. Interestingly, the technology in use behind these alert sounds is still developing, and actually presents the opportunity for genuinely exciting innovation.

Smart Alarms

Automakers are consistently pushing to develop and introduce new technological miracles, and these new warning sounds promise to be no exception. Several manufacturers are developing a system that works with sensors on the car to detect potential accidents or obstacles and then increase the alert’s volume as the object nears the car. Other manufacturers are experimenting with noises that get louder when the brakes are engaged, or when the car determines itself to be in an area with a high risk of pedestrian injury, such as a crowded city street. The most promising technologies, however, take the idea of a smart alarm system one step further.

Even Smarter Alarms

Perhaps the most exciting idea currently in development proposes using different noises to convey a degree of risk or urgency to pedestrians outside the vehicle. Plans as to exactly how to implement this scaling system vary, however, the core design principles essentially remain the same. Some designers advocate a noise that increases in volume as danger becomes progressively more prevalent, others propose using a series of beeps that escalate in frequency or a humming that also increases in frequency. Some of the more extreme proposals include an ear-piercing alarm that would sound in situations when danger is most eminent.

An Important Contradiction

The key to this entire system, however, seems to lie in developing a sound that is immediately recognizable as an electric vehicle. Just as the high-frequency beeping of a reversing truck can be recognized instantly, so must pedestrians be able to institutionally acknowledge the sound of an approaching electric vehicle. However, this requirement does create the grounds for an interesting dilemma between safety, functionality, and branding. To create this instantly recognizable noise, it seems logical to assume that all cars should omit the same sound. After all, if every brand of car were to have a distinct alarm, it would be challenging to develop a noise that everyone can instantly recognize. Therefore, when considering safety, it follows that every electric car alarm should sound roughly the same.

Safety vs. Branding

When considering branding or marketing, that principle seems to flip. If everyone on the street could identify a car’s manufacturer without even having to look at the car, companies would be able to create levels of brand awareness and investment never before possible. Thus, from the perspective of a company’s marketing division, it would make much more sense to have each brand omit its own distinct sound, just as each car comes with its own unmistakable logo and styling.

The Bigger Picture

Exactly how this technology will progress is, of course, impossible to predict, but the implications behind its development appear to be far-reaching with regard to the future of auto manufacturing. The dilemma presented in the electric car alarm noise is not unique to this technology, and will likely come up repeatedly as cars become increasingly advanced and begin to take further steps towards autonomy. Will self-driving cars be able to communicate back and forth between brands to better identify accidents or reduce traffic? Or will companies choose to use brand specific software that will likely be less effective in keeping the user safe, but will generate more income for the car manufacturer? What role will government regulators play in the development of this technology? The development of these electric car alarms will likely act as an indication of the answers to many of these pressing questions. So, regardless of what sound these cars make, one thing seems certain: singing cars are coming, and they are probably more important than everyone initially thought.