The music of cars to come

Electric cars are likely to become the next great success for the automobile industry. Although initially the energy savings may be negligible for lack of renewable energy sources to power these cars with, their green aura and the sizeable tax benefits for their purchase and registration will make them eminently desirable. The lack of exhaust fumes will definitely be a major advantage, especially in smog-filled cities. Another plus is that electric cars will be almost silent, especially at low speeds when tire noise is barely audible. This is another relief for city-dwellers, since cars make a sizeable contribution to the great cacophony of urban noise.

Silent cars may thus initially appear as something of a Godsend. But as anyone who ventures into traffic knows, we rely heavily on our ears to alert us to danger. Tourists in Amsterdam quite happily step in front of oncoming bicycles because they are literally only attuned to the danger of cars or scooters. Silent cars are thus likely to be as much of a liability as a boon.

We could of course re-educate pedestrians to be aware of the possibility of silent cars sneaking up on them, but a simpler solution, at least in the beginning of this brave new silent world, would be to add some extra noise to electric cars. This has actually be done before. When Japanese carmakers started producing nifty little sports cars modelled on the great British tradition, they found that their models, while providing a similar driving experience and boasting superior reliability, lacked a key ingredient: a nice roar. So rather than redesign the engine, they added some extra sound when the gas pedal is pressed down, to give the driver that all-consuming experience of roaring down country lanes.

In one respect, the Japanese had it easy: they knew which sound to imitate. The designers of our electric future, however, are spoilt for choice. What sound should an electric car make? We could make all cars sound like Bentleys or Jaguars, or Minis for that matter. Why indeed settle for a car sound at all? Any sound that warns reckless pedestrians and cyclists of its presence would be acceptable. Just as portable phones need to ring but are not limited to a ringing sound, so cars could make any sound conceivable. I myself would quite like to drive a silent car which produces the retro sound of a horse carriage.

But this is just the beginning. We could imagine cars sounding like a team of horses or a herd of elephants, like a flock of wild geese or a barrel of monkeys, or like low-flying airplanes or steamboats. Keen entrepreneurs will no doubt provide us with programmable car-tones on the model of ubiquitous ringtones. We will probably have cars that produce music, with more sophisticated polyphony than the warning beeps of reversing trucks with which we have learned to live. My girlfriend foresees a future where cars will drive around cities producing versions of Fur Elise and other great classics. Another dramatic comeback for Elvis is, literally, just around the corner.

The automotive future is thus likely to be a joyous, if possibly a slightly unnerving musical experience. While we can imagine our streets filling up with a carnival atmosphere and the birth of new musical stars, we can also expect conservatives and purists to long for the days when cars ran on petrol, fouled up the atmosphere and, most of all, sounded like cars. There are indeed those of us who still remember a world in which all phones had the same, rather demanding, ring.
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