I like the rumble of an engine. I like the increase in pitch and volume as the car accelerates. What can I say? I’m a car nut. Some people consider these noise but to me they’re music. Historically, there wasn’t too much to be done about it. It’s always been that way. Just as cats meow and dogs bark, automobiles make certain kinds of sounds.
Electric vehicles, however, will change all that. Each day there’s a new announcement declaring their ascendency their inevitable triumph. The federal government just announced that it hopes to stop sales of gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035.
Lincoln’s first EV will hit the streets in 2021. Ford, BMW, Mini Cooper, Audi, Volvo, Porsche – every major automobile manufacturer you can name – have EVs on the market. Volkswagen has vowed to end internal combustion engine vehicle sales by 2035, and Quebec is set to ban sales of combustion vehicles that same year. In Ontario, General Motors Co., Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) have all promised to invest billions in the production of electric vehicles.
Such announcements have prompted a lot of talk about what the new world of electric vehicles will look like.
We need to start thinking about how it will sound.
Sounds were the by-product of conventional, gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. No one had to create them. EVs, in contrast, make no sound. They are silent – so silent they can be dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists and even other automobiles. There are regulations in place to mandate that EVs create a minimum amount of sound when driven. These sounds must be designed and created from scratch.
Right now, there are two schools of thought about the future of EV sounds. Some automakers, such as Audi and Ford, are attempting to create EV sounds that mimic, or are at least descend from the sounds made by combustion engines. Ford’s Mustang Mach-E sounds like a futuristic combustion engine. There’s some logic to this. People are already attuned to these sounds. Still, this course leads to cities that sound like futurized versions of what currently exists.
BMW is taking the opposite approach. Led by Renzo Vitale, creative director at the BMW Group, the company is working to create sounds that are unique and purpose-driven for electric vehicles. Vitale considers electric vehicles a “white acoustical canvas.”
“Regardless of the fact that we’re legally required, we believe we’re offering something more to people,” Vitale says from his office in Munich. “And that we’re bringing the idea of the car to another level. The car is considered an object that moves people physically, but we also have to move people emotionally.”
Vitale, who is a pianist, composer, sound designer, acoustic engineer and artist, started work at BMW in 2015 as a noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) engineer. “My responsibility was to break down in physics the noise phenomenon, in order to avoid them when designing new cars.”
BMW was already creating some EV sounds. The company had introduced sound to the i3, even though it was not required by law. Vitale soon saw there was an opportunity to branch into new directions and by 2017, he was working on creating new sounds for BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce.
He developed a method he calls “sound genetics,” which he describes as “a framework of defined properties to define sounds that people haven’t heard before and create the sonic future of BMW.” Vitale explores and researches the character and pedigree of each vehicle, and spends months with designers and other automotive engineers in order to “define the genes” of the car.
When developing sound for the Mini Cooper SE, Vitale began with its 60-year history, its design and also the fact that the car is started, not by the push of a button, but by the press of a lever, which reminded him of a kalimba (an African thumb piano). He incorporated the signature design of the Mini wings and zeroed in on what he began to see as the vehicle’s essence.
“With Mini, I was trying to translate the energy. There is a warmth that I translated to sunlight.” He created three new sounds related to the way the Mini “speaks.” He then translated his design concept into Morse code and subsequently into musical notes. New EV sounds must ensure they attract attention and transmit information and so this new sound was tested for safety and to ensure that it was not “masked,” a phenomenon in which a sound frequency is not concealed by other sounds and disappears. The final product became the sound the Mini Cooper SE makes when it’s started.
Cars and drivers communicate through sound. When a car begins to break down, the driver can hear the problem as well as see and feel it. Vitale worked with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer on the BMW M, which has unique EV sounds which can transmit more than the simple warnings delivered by the lights in today’s vehicle. The BMW i4 M50 sound can be controlled by the driver. Comfort mode is soothing and atmospheric. Sport mode is more classically power driven, and when in Eco Pro mode, the acoustic feedback is minimal. Says Vitale, “What we are trying to do with the sound I am composing – with Hans Zimmer or without – is introducing the feedback that makes the driving experience in terms of information a solid one.”
By creating new sounds, rather than emulating the sounds of combustion engines, Vitale believes cars will no longer dictate how our cities sound but become instruments creating the sounds we want to hear.
“I think it’s important for cars to have sound, but to define it aesthetically,” Vitale says. “Cars should find their space within the soundscape. Cars have to find the space that isn’t already occupied.”
Vitale thinks of cars as a guest of the space. “Whenever you’re a guest somewhere, you should behave. At least, that’s what they say. That’s very true with cars, most of all with sound because of the noise they generate in cities. It’s one of the elements that people can attack most easily. ‘Cars are wrong. Traffic is wrong.’… When you’re stuck in a queue, you hate cars.”
Vitale believes that artificial intelligence (AI) may play a large role in the future of the automobile. “Just as with robotics and AI, all these creatures are relating to us as humans; this is an essential aspect for the car. The car is our companion. I hope that one day the empathic car is developed – it’s an extension of the people that interact with it.”
Clean air? Sweet sounding cities? Empathetic automobiles?
I can see the bumper stickers now: “Honk if you love my EV sounds.”