Nissan EV Chief Talks About Quietness Versus Safety of Electric Cars


Editor’s Note: This is part three of an exclusive sit down I had with Hideaki Watanabe, Nissan’s Division Manager of their Global Zero Emission Business Unit, at last week’s U.S. debut of the LEAF in Los Angeles. Part one is devoted to battery swapping, part two to battery leasing, and part four to the different zero emissions directions of Renault and Nissan within their alliance.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn made it a point to highlight how quiet the upcoming Nissan LEAF electric car will be during an event in Los Angeles last week to mark the car’s U.S. debut. “LEAF has no engine, no tailpipe, no fuel tanks,” he remarked. “As a result LEAF has zero carbon emissions, zero particle [emissions] and zero noise. It’s quiet and clean.”

The gathering crowd of electric car makers has been drumming this “quiet mantra” since day one, and, indeed, it is certainly a great selling point. But recently the quietness of EVs has come under scrutiny as a potential safety hazard to the blind, the elderly, and children; if you can’t hear the car, it’s one less warning you have of an impending accident.

Automakers, including Nissan, have announced their intentions to build sounds into EVs to alert at-risk populations. Even aftermarket companies have hitched themselves to the adding-sound-to-EVs-wagon, suggesting things such as downloadable “ringtones.”

Although I have mixed feelings about all of this (it’s bad enough that I hear a Britney Spears ringtone in the movie theater), I’ve begun to wonder if EVs will produce even more noise than cars with engines. If it’s a given that EVs will produce sounds to increase safety, can automakers really claim that the cars are quiet as a selling point? I asked Hideaki Watanabe, Nissan’s Division Manager of their Global Zero Emission Business Unit, to fill me in on Nissan’s plans in this area.

Mr. Watanabe noted that there are some things that will be out of Nissan’s control. “If the regulations come out, we have to comply with the regulations,” he said. “That’s it. If it kills the quietness of the low speed, it’s mandatory. The regulation is what is the best for that market, so that we have to comply with whatever it is.”

However, even though it seems that EVs will likely be required to emit noises to protect certain at-risk populations, it likely won’t be required in all situations. “Even if the authorities apply those regulations, I’m not really sure it it’s going to be like that for all the speed ranges,” Mr. Watanabe explained. “It’s only for the low speed range and when you’re stopped you likely won’t have a sound. So in some certain range of speeds they will require it, but above [or below] those speeds there will likely be no problems.”

Because of the restricted range in which noises may be required, Mr. Watanabe thinks that in general they can still say the LEAF is quiet.

When asked if Nissan should try and be proactive and get involved with the decision makers and policy influencers now about EV noises, Mr. Watanabe remarked, “There are a lot of opinions within Nissan. The bottom line is that we won’t be able to influence that. Of course, as an automotive company we are in several discussions with the authorities and we have given our opinion about it, but we really can’t rule the world.”

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Dislaimer: The author’s travel and lodging expenses were paid for by Nissan to attend the Los Angeles unveiling of the LEAF.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.