Are electric cars going to sound like futuristic hover cars?
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. When he's not writing he can be found trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
Try and get your head around this. The main inspiration for the way cars will sound in the future comes from films in the past that predicted the future. That’s right, sci-fi movies are influencing how cars, and therefore our towns and cities, are going to sound.
So that tabloid newspapers don’t brand them ‘silent killers’, it has been deemed that electric and hybrid cars need to make a noise when they're travelling slowly. An EU regulation came into effect in July of this year requiring all new types of electric and semi-electric cars to have an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVAS). The noise, whatever it may be, only needs to sound at speeds up to 12mph (20kph). Above that, wind and tyre noise make enough of a din to identify a car’s presence.
Not only is it a legal requirement for any new type of electric car, but AVAS is also a sensible precaution and many organisations that represent the blind have welcomed the legislation. It should be celebrated by everyone, too. Don't tell me you haven't walked into a stationary object while peering into your phone, absorbed by the abs of some keep-fit influencer on Instagram.
One firm that is tackling this responsibility and deciding what soundtrack will fill our urban areas is Harman. The German company is well placed to create these sounds, as it’s an expert in speakers. Actually, it owns almost every audio brand you can think of: Harman/Kardon, JBL, Mark Levinson, Lexicon, Bowers Wilkins and the automotive arm of Bang & Olufsen.
To give me, a tone-deaf audio luddite, some understanding of Harman’s AVAS technology — called HALOsonic — is Sebastian Krüger, the acoustic system engineer for the programme. As if to highlight the enormity of his responsibility, right before I ask a question, a nearby digger begins reversing and that crackly buzz interrupts us. You know the one, it sounds like listening to a goose down a terrible phone line. Krüger concludes that a sound designer didn’t have much influence over that noise.
Reversing warnings may be a prime example of what not to do, but I am surprised to hear that it’s primarily films that Krüger looks to for the right noises. Even more so than music or nature, apparently. "Sound design often comes from a music perspective, but movies play a huge role as we’re creating something futuristic, more scientific-like," he says. "But they serve a different role. They’re much more exaggerated. Take the sounds in Tron: in an everyday vehicle they would cause you to go crazy."
Our streets won’t be exactly like iRobot and Robocop then, but there is a reason why there might be similarities. "There are some basic vehicle sound principles: an increase in speed comes with an increase in pitch," Krüger says. "Some parameters are set in stone."
As well as trying to create pleasant noises we’re going to have to live with for decades, the other challenge is making cars sound different. Or as Krüger puts it ‘acoustic branding’. "The sound has to fit the car. It has to have the same character as the visual design. An S-Class, for instance, has to sound luxurious, solid, safe and secure."
And how is that different from a smaller car? I can tell Krüger is struggling to simplify something deeply complex so that someone like me, clearly not a sound expert, can understand. "Perhaps that’s more bassy than, say, an A-class."
Maybe it won’t be as complicated as every single car having its own audio signature, anyway. "There’s the question, should all Mercedes sound different? Legally they don’t have to, but [from a manufacturer’s perspective] an Audi has to sound different to a Mercedes. Maybe it will be just one noise for an entire brand."
If there are more subtle differences between models, it will be for the occupants of the car to hear. "You need to have continuity on what’s going on inside and outside the vehicle," Krüger says. "But it can be more complex and refined for the interior sound because the playback system is more sophisticated."
So we have an idea about what Harman envisages cars will sound like in the future, a Tesla Model S fitted with two speakers — one in the frunk and another at the bottom of the boot — does slow laps around us. From within the car comes a pulsating, thrumming noise. It’s not as high-pitched or as constant as the typical sci-fi vehicle, it’s less attention-seeking than that and it creates a low murmur around us. It's pleasant and familiar, such as might be heard in the background of a movie.
Are you really that fussed about what Harman thinks electric cars should sounds like, or are you still trying to get your head around who’s influencing who? Is there a conspiracy that I’ve missed? I mean, let’s not rule out the idea that a cybernetic organism came back from the future Terminator-style. Then, rather than kill the woman who would give birth to the leader of the resistance army, started working in the film industry creating the noises vehicles made in sci-fi movies, therefore altering how the real cars might sound in the future. It could have happened.
With an electric future assured, why not teach the young about the past? Using, for example, this The Sounds of Supercars board book for children. VROOOM!