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.

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