THIS WEEK AT the Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan unveiled the IMx, its newest electric (and autonomous) concept—and baby, it sings. And by “sing,” we mean emit a noise like a demonic string quartet tuning its instruments. Nissan calls the feature Canto—literally, “I sing” in Italian—and it’s built to alert pedestrians that the very quiet electric vehicle is coming, even at low speeds.
Electric and hybrid vehicles are fast and generally better for the environment than their internal combustion engine-powered brethren. And they’re a boon to those sick of living next to clamorous roads—the little high-pitched whine created by electric motors doesn’t travel nearly as far as the ripping barrrrp of a gas-powered car. But that can be bad news for your standard walker or cyclist, especially those who are vision impaired. That standard car noise is an important warning: Don’t cross now, there’s a vehicle coming. The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that hybrid vehicles are 35 percent more likely to get into a pedestrian-involved crash, and 57 percent more likely to get into a cyclist-involved one.
The federal government has recognized that this is a problem, and in 2015, NHTSA announced a new safety standard that would require electric vehicles to make an audible noise while traveling below 19 mph. (Cars moving faster than that will create enough tire and wind noise to be heard.) Theoretically, automakers will have to start building these sounds into their EVs by next fall, but the Trump administration is reportedly mulling over scrapping the rule in its general deregulation push. (NHTSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
But Nissan is pushing on. The Japanese carmaker released its first pedestrian warning with its 2011 Leaf, and the Canto concept improves on the model, adapting its tone and pitch to the car’s actions—accelerating, decelerating, or backing up. The carmaker’s designers wanted to create noises that put pedestrians on high alert, sure, but were careful to design sounds that “enrich the aural environment of the typical city street,” according to a statement. If your city street naturally sounds like the warm-up room at an ‘80s synth rock convention, this Nissan crossover concept should fit right in.
Other electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers have come up with sounds, too. Chevrolet Volts can chirp, hybrid Toyota Rav4s beep, and Prii (yes, that’s the official plural of Prius) hum. The design studio Ustwo has gone as far as to create three electric vehicle sound concepts, which veer pleasantly into EDM dance floor territory. Future cars might sound a little different, but they should still make noise.
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