The Man With Superhuman Ears

How one man detects and fixes unwanted noise in Nissan's vehicles.

Computers, robots, lasers, sensors - the technology that goes into building a 21st century automobile would make a comic writer from yesteryear scramble for his notebook.

But he would also probably agree that, better than all the fantastic gizmos you could dream up, a surefire recipe for success is to make your hero a humble scientist, and give him superhuman powers.

Meet Takanobu Sakumoto, from Nissan's Vehicle Test Technology Development Division. He's a specialist in the sensory assessment of wind noise - the roar of wind and air as it whooshes past your car when you drive along.

And the cutting -edge technology he uses for his job?

His ears.

A moving car generates all kinds of sounds - engine noise, exhaust noise, road noise. And wind noise. And all those different sounds are muddled together into that familiar roar that reaches your ears as you drive along.

To most of us that's just the noise that cars make, but for Sakumoto each part in the noise has its own particular character, and his ears can distinguish and pinpoint each individual sound, like unraveling a tangle of threads.

Working either in experimental facilities, where Nissan's full-scale aerodynamic wind tunnel can generate winds of up to 270km/h, or out on real expressways, where he gets behind the wheel and literally chases the wind, Sakumoto's job is to listen.

And he has fine-tuned his listening abilities to the point where, while most of us begin to find it difficult to hear high-frequency sounds as we get older, he can pick out just one tiny abnormal sound from the whole wall of noise that a moving vehicle makes. And having heard it, he will then locate the source, perhaps a gap just a few millimeters across in a trim component, and find a solution to fix it.

With a maximum wind speed of 270km/h, this wind tunnel, built in 1985, is the world's first low-noise wind tunnel.


Sakumoto once showed his superhuman style in his own home, when a tiny sound suddenly started to bother him. It was driving him crazy, and he tracked it down to the motor noise of his brand-new refrigerator.

He called the manufacturer and a repair technician came right over, but couldn't solve the problem. The sound was in a range that so few people notice that it wasn't anything that could be repaired.

Sakumoto could have just put it down to "occupational illness", and lived with it, but of course, he found his own solution and quietened the offending buzz.

There's nothing quite like that feeling of excitement when you first take your new car out for a drive. At Nissan, we want to make that feeling last, and we believe the way to do that is try to take the quality of every little thing to the next level.

The noise your car makes is one of those things, and Takanobu Sakumoto is the man with superhuman ears who sorts it out. But such extravagant names just make him laugh.

According to Sakumoto, to do this job, you really just have to be a "car person." He says what he needs for his job, and for Nissan's development work, is not superhuman ears, but an insatiable and enduring love for cars.

In the end, that's the kind of people who build Nissan's automobiles. Humble scientists with a passion for their work.

And perhaps just a little pinch of superhuman powers, too.

A full-scale aerodynamic wind tunnel with a maximum wind speed of 270km/h.