Are Hybrids and Electric Cars too Quiet?
Most of the noise made by cars doesn't come from the engine & exhaust, but from the friction of the tires on the road. There are exceptions of course (your teenage neighbor with his 5-inch exhaust pipe and 12-inch subwoofers), but if you stand on the side of a road, you'll hear a lot more tire noise than engine noise.
Sound Simulation Technology by Lotus
Still, in some conditions vehicles that are moving in electrical mode can be a bit too silent for their own good. It's not a huge problem compared to other road safety issues, but it should be addressed, and that's what Lotus is trying to do with its new "Sound Simulation Technology." It created a prototype called 'Safe and Sound' using a Toyota Prius. More details below (including a reference to a TIE Fighter and a Sherman Tank).
How Does it Work?
Technically, the technology that Lotus is using was first developed to make its cars quieter. You can read more about active noise cancellation at Wikipedia. But in the 'Safe and Sound' Prius prototype and future vehicles, a water-proof speaker is installed in the engine compartment, close to the radiator, and when the car is in electric-mode, sounds is synthesized. "The technology was designed around the behavior of a conventional engine, using an existing engine sound which makes it instantly recognisable with the pitch and frequency helping to identify vehicle distance and speed."
Having a Bit of Fun
It's only a question of time until this system gets hacked and people have vehicles that sound like Sherman tanks and TIE Fighters (please geeks, no need to mention that the picture above is a TIE Interceptor, not a TIE Fighter). Lets just hope that we're not stuck with a new type of noise pollution and that final implementation of such a system will be done for safety reasons primarily, and not to try to make electric vehicles noisier even when there are no safety benefits.
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Lotus Engineering Develops Sound Simulation Technology for Electric Drive Vehicles