Electric cars must find their own sound

The noise of vehicles with internal combustion engines is both a problem of noise pollution and a peculiarity that is sometimes in demand, at least for certain admirers of some cars or motorcycles. It is therefore undoubtedly often essential to let pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users hear that a vehicle is approaching and try to understand, by the sound it emits, where it is coming from, where it is going and at what speed. .

Hybrid or electric vehicles, on the other hand, make much less noise, especially at relatively low speeds: for this reason, regulations have already existed for some years, both in the United States and in Europe, to ensure that they also emit a certain amount of sound. However, it remains to be understood Which one sound has to make these cars, which will become more and more over time, and if it is a problem, as it seems to be inevitable, the sound will be different between one car manufacturer and another and between one car model and another and therefore following problems of noise and the ability to perceive risk.

According to reporter John Seabrook, who recently covered it The New Yorker, “The electrification of mobility” even offers “a rare opportunity for humanity to reinvent the sound of its cities”. For others, however, it would be enough to replicate the sounds we already know.

For decades, those who have designed and fitted vehicles with internal combustion engines have had to deal with two kinds of problems in relation to sound. On the one hand, especially in recent years, vehicles that were not too noisy do in accordance with the relevant laws. On the other hand, especially those dealing with sports or luxury cars or motorcycles, it was still necessary to ensure that certain sounds were there and clearly distinguishable, as they were highly linked to the users’ perception.

In recent times, after laws and technical developments have made engines quieter, many car manufacturers have even worked on fake sounds, in some cases combining the need to make cars quieter with the need to make them heard, at least inside the cabin . a certain type of sound. Sometimes – to the chagrin of some purists – recreating the sound expected from a particular car; others to invent one from scratch, as in the case of the R-Link system, with whose “sound personalization” a Renault Clio can make (in the cabin) the noise of a vintage car.

– Also read: The cars with the fake noise

In the case of electric cars – which at high speeds still make a noise comparable to cars with internal combustion engines – in the beginning, when they were a rare novelty, there was not so much concern that at low speeds or in reverse they were extremely silent. As The New Yorkerfor the car industry to be forced to add sound to electric cars, it took a few years of debate, animated among others by a community of blind people, and a series of studies that over time proved the danger of too quiet vehicles.

Among those dealing with this problem, a first hypothesis was to equip electric cars with sensors and warnings aimed only at those driving them, effectively delegating responsibility to the drivers (even more so than in the case of cars with internal combustion engines) to avoid accidents. However, sensors and warnings of that type, similar to those now quite common to facilitate parking, were criticized, especially by the blind community.

It was therefore decided that cars should be noisy outside, not just inside, and that just as traditional cars had a maximum permitted noise level, in the same way electric or hybrid cars should have a minimum level of sound. In the United States, this type of approach was included in the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, signed by Barack Obama in 2011 and then updated, revised and integrated in the following years.

In Europe, similar legislation has been in force since 2019 and requires all new electric and hybrid car models to have AVAS installed as standard, which stands for Audible Vehicle Alert System and is a system that emits a sound through a speaker that can be customized by different manufacturers. Each AVAS must have a volume ranging from a minimum of 56 decibels to a maximum of 75 decibels and is mandatory (and cannot be deactivated) in reverse gear and up to a speed of 20 kilometers per hour.

Given the relative freedom allowed by the current regulations, given the novelty that electric cars continue to represent, and since it is objectively complicated to legally define a sound, in fact no sound standard has yet been established: several manufacturers collaborate with dedicated experts and specialized companies to try to find a sound that, while respecting the current guidelines, can be effective, recognizable and unique in its own way and linked to a specific brand.

To create what The New Yorker defines “a sound palette”, Ford collaborates with e.g. with Listen, a New York company of “audio-branding”, that is, dedicated to creating and associating sounds with specific brands or products.

For over ten years, Renault has collaborated with the “Sound Perception and Design group” of IRCAM, the Institute for Acoustic/Musical Research and Coordination, which is based in Paris and has studied music production by electronic means since the 1970s. and it. Nicolas Misdariis, who leads the group dedicated to design and sound perception, spoke The New Yorker of some of the more complicated issues he has had to deal with. A first difficulty lies in understanding how to define a sound before making it: “if a graphic designer tells you “this is a red triangle”, there are not many possible interpretations”, while everything is more complicated if ” you say “I want a warm sound, round, rough or green”.

A subsequent sequence of problems lies in understanding whether the noise of electric cars should be “audio metaphors” (such as when mobile phones make the sound of old telephones, or when the computer’s “trash bin” produces a sound of paper being thrown into the bin) or whether, on the other hand, it is necessary to create and impose a new and more abstract sound, which in time can be symbolically associated with electric cars, or at least with electric Renaults. “Metaphors,” Misdariis said, “are easy to understand but hard to remember, while symbols are hard to understand but easier to assimilate.”

IRCAM has, among other things, collaborated with the Italian producer and composer Andrea Cera, who – according to the synthesis of New Yorker – «imagine an urban soundscape based on birdsong, where different sounds, instead of competing with each other to be heard, are integrated together into a general acoustic ecosystem ».

Always The New Yorker then cites cases of musicians and composers – from soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer to electronic musician Richard Devine – with whom various automotive causes (in this case BMW and Jaguar) have collaborated or still collaborate to create their sounds, not just AVAS. Already in 2021, however, the New 500 electric had a sound based on the theme of Nino Rota for Amarcord.

Among others, there are those like Nissan who try to stand out with more “natural” sounds, who, like Tesla, could venture into quite creative sounds (the Tesla already allows you to record and reproduce certain sounds outside when the car is fixed), those who instead think of sounds that are a bit more futuristic and related to science fiction (although in reality they are often made in the films in question, based on the real sounds of certain cars) and those who that thinks instead of sounds that can be adapted in some way, which is generally forbidden at the moment.

The risk is that the car manufacturers can concentrate too much on the search for a sonic identity, and that in order to differentiate themselves from the others, they end up creating many different sounds. With recognition problems for those who will have to recognize them, as well as the risk of a not at all pleasant cacophony of AVAS different from each other.

All these arguments are then met with those relating to the sounds that a car must make inside: from the classic ones of closing the door and starting (which some car manufacturers attach great importance to) to the newer ones and generally related to semi-autonomous cars, where sounds are considered essential to ensure that people in the car perceive, as written by The New Yorker“That the car in question is following a plan, not doing random things.”

– Also read: When cars won over pedestrians

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