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Soundings: The sound of a Leaf moving

The sound of a Leaf moving

Two cheers for Nissan for beginning to understand the significance of sound for machines. The web is a-buzz with a PR campaign for the new Nissan Leaf which cleverly manages to press at least two different ‘issue’ buttons simultaneously. The Leaf is a hybrid car which runs silently on electricity at low speeds. Prompted by transport agencies in both the USA and Japan, the manufacturer has developed a special audio system for the car which gives it a new ‘sonic personality’.

There are safety concerns: other road users and pedestrians, especially those with limited vision, need to hear where vehicles are, and how fast they are travelling. This consideration is beginning to override the question of urban noise pollution. So Nissan designers, having designed out virtually every electro-mechanical noise source in their new vehicle, had to start devising a replacement sound profile to give the Leaf an audio presence on the street.

It started well. They realised that simply imitating traditional car noises was not necessary. In fact the entire audio world was their oyster. In the words of Toshiyuki Tabata, Nissan’s specialist noise reduction engineer, ‘If we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic . We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art’. Composers were consulted.

The result: a sound not unlike a jet aircraft taking off, apparently modelled on the ‘futuristic’ flying cars in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. At a fell swoop Nissan has attracted the macho film and motoring markets, whilst appeasing the road safety lobby. But ‘different’? – not much, ‘beautiful’? – doubtful, ‘futuristic’? – only for another nine years (Blade Runner is set in 2019).

And there’s another reason for only two cheers.

The important point about the sound of machines is that it tells you something about the way the machine is operating: which part of its cycle, whether it is coping or not, where it is (in the case of moving machines). Good machines produce information-rich sounds which are critical to the human-machine communication interface. People who have to work and live with machines need to be able to interact, and the sound of a machine is by far the best way to do this – as any motoring specialist will tell you.

So what Nissan has done is to eliminate all possible operator interaction between the car and its driver. And they have also created an illogical, alien street sound which many other street users will simply not be able to ‘read’ correctly. They’ve reduced the information content of the sounds to a crudely simple ‘present – not present’ signal.

It’s reminiscent of a similar bizarre marketing episode from the 1960s when instant coffee became all the rage. Powdered instant coffee has no inherent odour (some would probably say not much taste either), but manufacturers realised that a strong element of the coffee experience was the smell. So they commissioned scientists to recreate the coffee smell chemically to insert into the coffee jar so that it was released when the paper seal was broken.

However, Nissan could have been a lot more creative. Why not incorporate a brand or company audio logo into the Leaf start-up sequence so that people will know what kind of car is present? Or a set of driver choice jingles, like personalised ringtones on mobiles? Why not use ice cream vans as inspiration rather than dystopian sci-fi vehicles. Come on Nissan – be really creative and give other street users something more fun to pay attention to.

Andrew Peggie

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