The "Exhaustophone," installed on an electric rickshaw. Marta Santambrogio

Designers imagine ways to make electric cars safer—and symphonious.

The honks, hums, beeps, and screeches of city traffic can wreak havoc on your nerves and compromise your health in the long run. But too little noise can also put you in danger when you can’t hear that Prius whizzing by as you cross the street. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that hybrid electric vehicles, equipped with virtually soundless engines, have a higher incidence rate of pedestrian and cyclist crashes than do conventional cars.

As the market for electric vehicles continues to grow, lawmakers are trying to prevent such accidents by adopting so-called “quiet car rules.” In January 2013, the NHTSA proposed a new minimum sound standard that would mandate alert noises on hybrid and electric vehicles; pending comment from the auto industry, implementation has been delayed until September 2018. Meanwhile, the European Union approved a quiet car rule last year, calling for safety sounds by 2019.

One unintended consequence of the regulations: a chance to transform the urban soundscape for the better. As CityLab reported back in 2013, designers are experimenting with new—and potentially more pleasant—noises for electric cars. Since these sounds would necessarily be artificial, auto makers are no longer tethered to the dull buzz and whir of internal combustion engines. The Nissan Leaf, for instance, makes a unique high-pitched sound to warn pedestrians.

Marta Santambrogio, a student in the Material Futures program at London’s Central Saint Martins, has taken this concept to its creative extreme—turning the sound of traffic jams into a “jam session.” Inspired by the new EU rule, Santambrogio’s “Fuzzy Logic Project” imagines a system of musical vehicle attachments to differentiate the tuk-tuks, trucks, and sedans that clog up India’s notoriously dangerous roads.

Marta Santambrogio

The design draws from the improvisational nature of traditional Indian music. Santambrogio writes: “Each [rickshaw] plays an instrument as part of a system designed to be randomly harmonic and make musical sense as a whole. … Traffic becomes a jam session, a kind of moving orchestra.”

The Fuzzy Logic Project is, of course, purely speculative. It recalls another long-shot urban sound design by former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. His “Subway Symphony”—recently revived by Heineken and roundly rejected by New York City’s MTA—would create musical noises for subway turnstiles. Fanciful as these ideas are, they’re helping us conceive of an urban world that sounds just a little bit friendlier.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo collage of 2020 presidential candidates.
    Equity

    Will Housing Swing the 2020 Election?

    Among Democratic candidates for president, the politics of America’s housing affordability crisis are getting complicated. Just wait until Trump barges in.

  2. A cat lays flat on a bench at a park on the outskirts of Tokyo.
    Life

    Why Don't Americans Use Their Parks at Night?

    Most cities aren’t fond of letting people use parks after dark. But there are good lifestyle, environmental, and safety reasons to reconsider.

  3. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

  4. A photo of an abandoned building in Newark, New Jersey.
    Equity

    The 10 Cities Getting a Philanthropic Boost for Economic Mobility

    An initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group focuses on building “pipelines of opportunity.”

  5. A map of apartment searches in the U.S.
    Maps

    Where America’s Renters Want to Move Next

    A new report that tracks apartment searches between U.S. cities reveals the moving aspirations of a certain set of renters.

×