from To vroom or not to vroom? Automakers craft new sounds for electric performance vehicles
To vroom or not to vroom? Automakers craft new sounds for electric performance vehicles
Detroit Free Press
Published 6:05 a.m. ET March 19, 2022 Updated 12:26 p.m. ET March 19, 2022
Automakers face a new version of an old question as they build powerful and sporty electric vehicles like the 1,000-hp GMC Hummer EV and 480-hp Ford Mustang Mach-E GT: What should their most exciting vehicles sound like?
The answer used to be obvious: Sports cars, muscle cars and race cars sounded like their engines. Ferraris sounded like soaring V12s. Muscle cars like big, rumbling V8s. A handful of exotics had the distinctive note of a flat-plane crankshaft, like the upcoming 2023 Chevrolet Corvette Z06.
An internal combustion engine’s roar is inherently dramatic: barely contained power, the result of thousands of precisely controlled explosions every minute. Revving a gasoline engine evokes decades of daring drivers, famous chase scenes from “Bullitt” to “F9.”
EV motors are basically scaled-up dentist drills. Not a whole lot of positive connotations there.
“The first lap of an auto race is a wall of thunder,” said Lindsay Brooke, editor of Automotive Engineering magazine. Brooke has attended Formula E electric car and electric motorcycle races, saying: “The main sound at Formula E is tire noise, and occasionally cars banging off each other. When they come around the corner, it’s just a clog of cars. You don’t hear them approaching.”
Quiet operation is among EVs’ selling points, but complete silence in a moving vehicle is unnerving, so automakers and suppliers are composing new sounds to complement brand and vehicle image and to give the driver sensory input about what the vehicle is doing.
“With almost completely silent operation, EVs present a great canvas for sound design,” General Motors lead sound design engineer Jay Kapadia said.
“For the GMC Hummer EV, we wanted to have an engaging and bold sound that exuberates confidence in capability. The truck’s sonic identity is precise and powerful, a reflection of its size and torque. It is not overly refined in terms of the sounds we deployed but instead features dynamic distortion effects.”
That’s just the beginning. There’s no telling where automakers will try when the possibilities include everything from kitsch — "The Jetsons" theme song, anybody? — to musical instruments and totally new synthesized sounds.
“We want to give people cues that are familiar, but also communicate electric power,” said Jonathan Pierce, director global of experiential research for supplier Harman, whose products include B&O, Panasonic, JBL, AKG and Revel audio.
What does your brand sound like?
The vehicles’ audio systems typically generate the sounds, sometimes also canceling wind and road noise, which seem more intrusive without an engine and transmission to drown them out.
“Sound is important,” Bose Automotive senior marketing manager Bruce Sanborn said. “It communicates to the driver about the task the vehicle is trying to accomplish. We can implement sounds to complement crawling over a rock, or to communicate throttle input from the driver’s foot.
“The sound has to be true to the brand, the vehicle and the consumer.”
Some EVs addressed the question largely by mimicking the sound progression of an engine revving. That may have made sense once, but sometime soon, it’ll be like a kid on a
Big Wheel bike going, “Vroom, vroom.” People don’t shell out tens of thousands of dollars on performance vehicles to be told they look like an adorable 5-year-old playing in the front yard.
“EV sounds are here to help consumers with the transition from internal combustion engines to electric,” said Ed Kim, president of consulting firm AutoPacific. “Most of these sounds attempt to mix familiar engine notes with vaguely futuristic tones. Eventually, consumers will probably perceive artificial engine noise in an EV to be insincere as it’s pretty obvious the sound does not come from the electric powertrain.”
Increasingly, automakers want sounds that feel authentic for the brand and the vehicle, not necessarily to evoke a gasoline engine.
“We want to give people cues that are familiar, but also communicate electric power,” said Pierce.
Ford’s B&O audio system generates cabin sounds created to match each of the Mustang Mach-E’s driving modes.
The upcoming Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup will have a special interior sound tailored for its top Platinum trim level, in addition to sounds for different driving modes:
“Sound is very emotional. It can make or break the customer experience of a vehicle,” Pierce said.
“Does the sound match the brand’s characteristics? Should it be familiar or futuristic?”
Early EVs tended to be small, modest looking cars. As the technology goes mainstream, automakers need to figure out what modern performance sounds like.
'A sound you cannot imagine'
Teasing Dodge’s upcoming electric muscle car, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares recently promised: "We are creating a sound that you cannot imagine. It's something that is shocking. After (Dodge engineers) create the sound, they are thinking about how they make the sound louder and more powerful in function of the way you are using the car."
Mercedes-Benz engineers labored over the audio palette for the new EQE AMG electric sedan, which has two motors for all-wheel drive, up to 677 hp and can hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds.
Due to go on sale in 2023, the EQE AMG’s Burmeister audio system has programs for "authentic" and "performance" sounds, with three levels of each: balanced, sport and powerful.
Automakers are considering creating tailored performance sounds that would be projected outside the vehicles, but that would require special speakers — and added expense— and it’s not clear whether buyers would want it. Expect more research on that as the art and science of tailoring EV sounds progress.
Contact Mark Phelan: at 313-222-6731 or [email protected]
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