12 July 2022

The changing role of sound in electric cars – and how leading brands are responding

Expert comment
The future is electric, but what does it mean for the future of car soundscapes?

As well as zero emissions, electric cars produce almost zero mechanical sound.

But as we’ve seen the number of quiet cars out on the roads triple since 2018, the boom is EV sales has meant the voices opposing them have grown louder.

For example, the UK charity Guide Dogs for the Blind dubbed electric and hybrid cars ‘silent but deadly’, highlighting the danger they pose to the visually impaired who rely on hearing to cross the road safely; the pushback resulted in new rules for manufacturers, designed to protect pedestrians.

While road safety is an obvious driving force behind automakers playing around with sound, for driving enthusiasts, you just can’t beat the purr of a finely tuned engine. And now, brands are experimenting through audio to overcome these challenges.

We’ve taken a look at some of the names electrifying the EV auditory experience – from composing musical in-car alerts, to simulating the rumble of a combustion engine, to even devising a brand-new kind of sonic soundtrack.

BMW

One visionary name getting creative with artificial sound – and a premium name at that – is BMW.

It was revealed in 2019 that the German automaker had joined forces with native-born music maker, Hans Zimmer – the composer behind some of Hollywood’s most iconic film scores, including Dune, Interstellar, The Pirates of the Caribbean and Gladiator. His illustrious career has now veered into the world of electromobility, scoring soundtracks for cars in place of movies.

He said:

Each BMW has its own character, which is reflected in the sound it makes… we’ve developed a drive sound that accentuates their emotional driving experience and ensures their performance can be felt with even greater intensity.

Zimmer has played a title role in crafting a rousing sound portfolio for BMW’s i4 M model.

Depending on the driving setting selected, the sonic profiles vary, most noticeably between comfort and sport modes. The latter takes on a more dominant and powerful sound with acceleration sparking a goosebump-inducing thrill.

Renault

French mainstream brand Renault recently unveiled their Scenic Vision concept car, an electric-hydrogen powerhouse set to hit the market in 2024.

And who have they teamed up with to create an exclusive soundscape design? French composer and record-producer, Jean-Michel Jarre – AKA, the Godfather of electronic music.

This interview (in French, but with English subtitles) outlines his role in concrete terms.

Putting Jarre firmly in the driver’s seat, the Renault team is entrusting him with composing distinct sound signatures for their new EV line-up – including a welcome sequence when entering the vehicle, and the exterior sound that’s emitted when the vehicle’s traveling under 30km/h.

He’s also orchestrating Renault’s innovative ‘Sonic Road’ algorithm – a soundtrack that will draw on a driver’s music tastes and the journey’s contextual components, from the landscape and weather, to even the time of day.

With a system of ‘sound bubbles’ installed in each head restraint, this new sensory experience is designed to immerse passengers in their surroundings – and it seems like Jarre’s artistic flair will prove instrumental.

Audi

Enlisting the help of audio designers isn’t a new phenomenon though. Rudolf Halbmeir is a sound engineer for Audi who’s been in the business for over 20 years. Since the shift to electric, he’s discussed how the nature of his work’s evolved from making cars with combustion engines quieter, to honing the Audi EV sonic experience.

To nail the Audi e-tron sound, he helped develop their own purpose-designed software to recreate sound patterns that synchronize with the car’s speed; this clip shows early work in developing a sound for the Audi R8 e-tron: a 2011 electric prototype and a precursor to today’s electric Audis.

The result? A distinct and sporty, full-bodied rumble that’s been more than a decade in the devising.

Lincoln

For a classy and comfort-orientated brand like Lincoln, clean silence is a luxury they do not intend to give up. But that doesn’t mean they don’t recognise the impact of quality sound – quite the opposite.

As we explored in our recent in-depth look at how Lincoln uses audio, they assigned the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to record a suite of chimes to form their in-car audio warning systems and alerts.

As these sounds become more audible in a quiet cabin, their decision to opt for an ensemble of real instruments (over synthetic, studio-made sounds) rings loud and clear.

Obsessed with audio

So what does Joe Public think? In chat forums, driving enthusiasts have taken to their keyboards to discuss how sound is integral to their car preferences.

Does more sound equal more fun? With people dedicating hours to fine-tuning their engine to achieve a sound that’s ‘just right’, it’s impossible to overlook the seduction of a mighty roar.

You could argue, though, that this is merely a result of conditioning. Internal combustion engine (ICE) cars produce an exhaust note as a by-product of the mechanical processes happening inside; having grown up in a world where there’s no alternative but for fast cars to produce huge noise, it’s entirely possible that today’s drivers cannot separate the two.

Drivers of the future – today’s children – may however feel differently, growing up in a world where silent-running EVs are the norm.

Awkward silence

While opinion may still be divided, it raises the question – is the absence of sound when you expect it problematic?

If we think in terms of consumer expectations, sound – or the absence of it – has the power to enhance or tarnish your experience.

Just think back to the last time you called a business, only to be put on-hold with the kind of silence that makes the clock feel like it’s ticking backwards… or when you’ve entered a store with no ambience, bursting that little bubble of yours.

It’s why countless brands work with us: to fill awkward silences with high-quality, engaging audio. Whether it’s custom music and messaging for callers waiting on hold, or an audio bed creating an atmosphere in stores and waiting rooms, we can help.

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