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Designing the sound of tomorrow's electric cars

Tue, 15 Apr 2014

By 2019, the European parliament has ordered that all new electric cars sold in the EU must be fitted with a device that emits noise to make them more audible to pedestrians.

With safety legislation in America and elsewhere set to follow, this presents an opportunity to completely rethink the sound electric cars make. It's a chance to take it beyond a warning sound by considering something that harmonizes with its surroundings. It could be a sound that doesn't just react to a hazard, but one that responds and returns something to its environment.

This is exactly the philosophy behind Sonic Movement, a research project headed by a group of designers, artists and musicians that advocates an entirely fresh approach to the sound of EVs.

Time for a new approach 

The initial idea came from designer James Brooks. After testing numerous electric cars, he noticed how underwhelming their pedestrian warning sounds were and decided he could do better.

In early 2013, he contacted fellow Royal College of Art Vehicle Design graduate, Fernando Ocaña, who is creative director at Swedish technology firm Semcon. After some initial discussion, the duo quickly realized they were missing the sonic expertise to evolve the project further, so approached musician Holly Herndon, who in turn introduced artist and technologist Mat Dryhurst. 

Sonic Movement received backing from Semcon, whose acoustics group leader Jonas Klein and sound engineer Peter Mohlin are working closely with the team.

"Our cities have developed but the sonic landscape remains primitive and disordered,” explains Ocaña. Instead of a fresh take on the subject, he says what we’re seeing is “a focus on sounds that are about warning. They tend to be heavily imprisoned in the old age of the motor car – the stereotypical roaring engines, the depiction of speed, of aggression. Some car companies are even looking at fake Ferrari engine notes.”

Ocaña adds that Sonic Movement encourages designers to look at the subject from an entirely different angle to discover “the aesthetics of sound and the responsiveness of it, which allows the car to react to the city around it.

“We need to influence the legislation so as not to live in a world of fake engine sounds and find a suitable humanistic sound so that the car is no longer the villain.”

Experiments with 3D sound

The team is experimenting with ways in which the car connects with its surroundings through compositions created by Herndon and Dryhurst. Instead of current two dimensional sound – when a car is near or far away, or when it accelerates or decelerates – they have attempted to make sounds three dimensional to indicate what the car is doing more naturally. 

When the car is at idle, it emits a bassy rumble from four speakers mounted on the car's four corners, to tell other road users and pedestrians that it's poised and ready to move. The sound adapts to the ambient noise of its surroundings to ensure it can always be heard.

When accelerating, the noise rotates around the car, slowly at first, but gets faster as you accelerate. At 35kmh (22mph) the sound cuts out, as wind and tyre noise take over. 

The team has also created a pitch-bending sound that illustrates when the car changes trajectory or sits idle. They are also looking at the sounds multiple cars make, exploring how they could work together to build a 'motoring symphony.' 

Defying convention

The success of Sonic Movement relies on the different skill sets and experiences each member offers. Developing the three dimensional nature of the sonics relies on combining Herndon’s work in exploring the intersection between people and technology, and Dryhurst's focus on the blurred edges between art and technology. 

Brooks and Ocaña have shaped the project with their unconventional attitude towards car design that has influenced their careers so far. The architectural shape of Ocaña's final RCA project, Monoform, encouraged us to view our environment from an all-important new perspective, while the BOX, a joint project by Brooks and RCA student Richard Bone, was an innovative new take on urban car sharing.

The Sonic Movement manifesto states that 'the dawn of electric and hybrid travel allows us to fantasize on what the future of our city streets could sound like.' And while the project is fantasy, its approach feels like a welcome step in bringing a new order to the soundtrack of sustainable electric driving.

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By Nargess Shahmanesh Banks