/ Motoring

Vroom, vroom! Would you drive a car with a fake sound?

Sign with a horn

From the sound of a 1950s UFO movie to the noise of a piece of cardboard stuck in a bike wheel, researchers are creating a range of sounds to stop electric cars approaching silently along streets. What would you choose?

Wherever you live – near a busy A-road or in a quiet, leafy village – I bet you’ve been annoyed by traffic noise at some point.

Whenever I stay at my parents’ house, on a cut-through to the local shops, I’m woken up frequently in the night by cars and lorries hammering past the windows.

So you might think I’d be jumping for joy at the prospect of silent vehicles filing along our streets. But, having driven a handful of brand-new electric vehicles (EV), I’m not so sure.

The sound of silence is dangerous

That’s because every time I’ve driven an EV, I’ve had to slam on the brakes at some point because a pedestrian or cyclist hasn’t noticed the car and stepped out in front of it. I really think it’s vital for anything that hurtles (ok, possibly potters, in the case of some little EVs) around at speed must make itself heard.

And, although no electric cars have been given fake sounds so far, I know it’s possible because carmakers have been enhancing the audio-note of certain vehicles for some years. The latest Golf GTi, for example, has a device in its exhaust that beefs up the sound of the engine when the car’s driven hard.

And plenty of other sporty cars sound different when you switch them into ‘sport’ mode. Generally the engineers have stiffened up the suspension, sharpened up accelerator response and added burbling and popping noises to the exhaust’s overture.

The art of noise

But with EVs being heralded as the ‘cars of the future’, should they sound different?

Researchers at Warwick University are considering this question, and trying to find the most appropriate soundtrack by driving an EV that makes a variety of artificial noises around the campus. They range from a normal car sound to something that sounds like it comes from a 1950s UFO film.

Having listened to them I can at least concede that many do sound more appealing than the ‘turbine’ noise that’s been dreamt up for the Nissan Leaf EV.

While I appreciate that this could be a chance to replace the noise pollution of traffic with something more pleasant, it has to be something that lets you know a vehicle is approaching – not a jet engine in the distance.

Maybe carmakers should give us a number of noises to choose from to suit our mood and driving conditions? I for one would probably opt for a rumbling V12 (like a 1960s muscle car) to get a wide berth from other road users – on my daily slog through the streets of London. What about you?

Fred says:
20 May 2011

What we need is a law to stop people using ipods and phones while crossing the road- as a cyclist I constantly have to protect pedestrians from their own idiocy. I think electric cars should make the slightly clattery squeaky sound of a Tiger tank.

Peter Stott says:
20 May 2011

The cars should make a sound to warn pedestrians.

The sound should be like what we would all recognise as a current model motor car.

Ed says:
20 May 2011

Excuse the pun but I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous! Cars are noisy as a by product of the internal combustion engine not by design. Deaf people seem to manage OK so people with normal hearing would soon adapt. If they are going to enforce a sound for electric vehicles then it should be on the decibel level of the car. Therefore ANY car below a set level would have to emit the sound ie your Rolls Royces and Jags etc.

James says:
20 May 2011

I agree with Fred about the constant use by some pedestrians of ear phones whilst out in busy urban situations. However I was always taught as a child to look left, look right, then left again before you crossed the road so initially I thought the “artificial noise” for electric cars was a bit silly. However I saw a BBC news report about blind people who obviously go much more by the sound of vehicles coming & whose guide dogs are trained to react to the sound of those approaching vehicles. That changed my mind. The simple answer would be to mimic normal car sounds but possibly at a slightly lower decibel level so we, and the clever guide dogs, can tell a car is coming.

To be honest most modern cars driven normally are very quiet anyway – So I do think a car horn is enough

There is too much noise at all times we dont need extra, if peple were used to quiet then we would not need extra noise for cars. Why do ambulances have sires so annoying and much much louder than police or fire engines

Dnt forget those of us who live in rural areas ! Car sounds are even more important than in towns.
If using country lanes and any windy road the only warning you have of a car approaching is the noise it makes, this applies whether you are a pedestrian, cyclist or horse rider.

I owned an electric car for a year. Although the owner’s guide warned about pedestrians not hearing it, there was never a problem. It’s drivers’ and other road users’ responsibility to be aware of what’s happening. All cars have horns and headlamp flashers for drivers to warn others “I am here!” How silly to make quiet cars (is there not too much noise everywhere these days?) and then suggest making them noisier!

Stevie B says:
22 May 2011

Having just bought a Prius, I’m well aware of the risk that it won’t be heard by pedestrians. Supermarket car parks seem to be the riskiest places, as the car’s in electric mode at low speeds, and shoppers often have other things on their mind. I’d prefer to have some audible warning of my presence, which automatically turns on when the car goes into electric only mode. I suppose an artificial engine noise is the most logical sound, though I’d prefer an electronic warble. As long as it’s audible without being too intrusive, it’s not important. (I don’t want an irritating beep beep “This vehicle is reversing” beep beep sound.) The sound should be standard across all makes and models so that people soon become familiar with it.
Cyclists aren’t a problem in a Prius – a light touch on the accelerator well before starting to overtake will cause the petrol engine to start up and be heard. All-electric cars would have to have their artificial sound on at all times to keep cyclists safe (tough obviously not on motorways).

Simple solution – In car parks drive with your window open and radio on – everybody can hear you then.

Rowland says:
22 May 2011

I agree with Ed that, if a noise is ordained, it should apply to all vehicles below a set decibel noise level. But where do we stop with preventing people from the consequences of their own foolishness? Should we introduce gaudily-coloured cars because grey ones won’t be noticed? Should we insist that cyclists wear silly clothes to attract attention? I think we are in danger of allowing H & S another run of stupidity.

Roy P says:
22 May 2011

I have found that whether pedestrians, cyclists, or other motorists hear you or not will walk or drive out in front of you regardless, vigilance is required at all times wherever you drive. And up here in the Scottish Highlands it is done deliberatley with no care for your of their safety. I would like to fit a loud train horn to my car, but the computer will not allow it, my car is new (bought July 2010) I can understand possibly the need for a sound on electric vehicles..but it won’t stop the idiots trying to commit suicide under your car.

Marion says:
23 May 2011

A Pagani Zonda R. Heard/saw it at Goodwood Festival of Speed. That would get everyones attention.

barry b says:
10 April 2012

People with walkman plugs in there ears and using mobiles.They walk in front of moving trafic.deaf dumb and blind to the world around

Ever since the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost there have been cars that are all but silent at town speeds so what has changed?
Pedestrians tend to look around and see me in my i3 electric car in the country lanes when I am still 20 to 30 feet away as there is still road noise generated from the tyres etc.
I actually get more Pedestrians stepping off the pavement into the path of my diesel van, which has no rear windows, when I am reversing into parking spaces than either my i3 or my wife’s Tesla.
So it’s a definite NO! to any additional noise polution as far as I am concerned!