The automaker is hoping a partnership with composers at Man Made Music will lead to the perfect whir.
By Belinda Lanks, Bloomberg Newsweek
By their nature, electric vehicles are quiet—and that’s a problem. If pedestrians, especially the visually impaired, can’t hear a car approaching, they don’t know to step out of its way. New federal safety regulations requiring all 2020 EV and hybrid models to make noise while driving at slow speeds should address the issue. But what should they sound like?
Nissan Motor Co., maker of the world’s best-selling EV, the Leaf, has been working on an answer. Its artificial-engine vroom, designed with New York studio Man Made Music, not only meets the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s stringent requirements for volume and frequency but also doesn’t create more noxious noise. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t adding to what I call sonic trash—unnecessary, unwarranted sound,” says Man Made founder Joel Beckerman, whose compositions include the themes for the CBS Evening News and Imax’s countdown video.
There isn’t a lot of guidance for what the sound should be. The federal standard, finalized in April 2018, requires new EVs to emit an audible sound when traveling at less than 18.6 mph. (Traveling faster than that, a car produces enough tire-on-road noise to let people know it’s coming.) “If you want to exactly match the regulation, you just project white noise across the whole frequency spectrum,” says Nicholas Thomas, Nissan’s EV director, referring to the minimum volume, from 49 decibels when a car is idle to 66 decibels when it’s moving at 18.6 mph. “That was clearly not something we wanted to do, because that wasn’t going to make the world a more pleasant place.” According to BloombergNEF researchers, 55% of all new car sales could be electric by 2040, so EVs will transform the din of cities in the future.
Arriving at Nissan’s distinctive whir was a nine-month design process starting with a branding exercise to pinpoint the Japanese automaker’s “core values,” which Thomas describes as optimism, confidence, and warmth. “We picked up a few pens and started to sketch out what we wanted, and more specifically what we didn’t want,” he says. “We didn’t want to forcibly create a sound of a petrol engine.” In addition, the team wanted something futuristic, but not like a toy spaceship.
Nissan ultimately settled on a two-second loop of carefully layered guitar plucks, wind instruments, and some synthesized tones, which Man Made Music mixed together using two popular software programs, Ableton Live and Max MSP. “The use of all these elements stacked together allowed us to craft sound in the overtone series—the higher pitches—which produces a very unique vocal-like quality that Nissan owns,” Beckerman says. The higher pitches are nearly imperceptible to the ear, but “they affect the color of the note. It becomes part of their product and brand.”
Called Canto (Latin for “I sing”), the Leaf sound is projected from speakers in the car’s bumper to signal to pedestrians whether the vehicle is accelerating, decelerating, or moving at a constant speed. (The pitch rises 1% with each additional kilometer per hour.)
According to Man Made and its research partner, consulting firm Sentient Decision Science, acoustics can have a huge impact on how a brand is perceived—if a listener likes the sound associated with an experience, she’s 86% more likely to want to repeat the experience. Man Made and Sentient have mapped commonly heard man-made and naturally occurring sounds along what they call the Sonic Humanism Spectrum. At the negative end is the pain scream, followed by the piercing weather alert your phone emits and nails on a chalkboard. The most positively received is baby laughter, followed by birdsong and applause.
Nissan declines to say when it expects Canto to make its street debut. Arriving at the unique sonic recipe took only a few weeks of iterations and prototypes, making sound design a relatively inexpensive way to establish a brand’s identity, Beckerman says. Whereas visual branding, hardware and software design, and retail architecture can cost millions of dollars “to make a real difference,” he says, “the cost of an audio branding project starts at $40,000.” That’s a tiny fraction of the cost of other design efforts that affect experience, design, or safety.