Nissan calls on composers of movie scores to give EVs sound

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Toshiyuki Tabata spent 30 years as a Nissan Motor Co. engineer trying to make gasoline-powered cars quieter. Now he’s consulting music composers to make electric cars noisier — and safer.

Electric and hybrid cars, with little or no engine noise, are lauded for their silence, yet some groups including advocates for the blind say pedestrians may fail to notice them approaching. To address those safety concerns, transportation agencies in the United States and Japan may mandate artificial sounds for the vehicles.

“We fought for so long to get rid of that noisy engine sound,” said Tabata, Nissan’s noise and vibration expert. With electric cars, “we took a completely different approach and listened to composers talk music theory.”

Carmakers including Nissan and Toyota Motor Corp., manufacturer of the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, are researching sound as more silent models come to market. Nissan will start selling its Leaf electric car next year in the U.S., Japan and Europe, while General Motors Co. plans to introduce its Volt plug-in electric car by November 2010. Toyota will introduce a battery-powered vehicle in 2012.

Tabata was instructed about three years ago to re-create the sound of an engine. Given his years of work eliminating noise to enhance the driving experience, he said he balked at the suggestion of turning back the clock and adding anything evocative of an engine.

“We decided that if we’re going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic,” Tabata said.

The company consulted Japanese composers of film scores. What Tabata and his six-member team came up with is a high-pitched sound reminiscent of the flying cars in “Blade Runner,” the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott portraying his dystopian vision of 2019.

“We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” Tabata said.

The sound system would turn on automatically when the car starts and shut off when the vehicle reaches 20 kph, Tabata said.