The sound of success

16th Sep

“This is a Maserati,” ended a radio advertisement from the Italian sports car manufacturer just few years ago. What preceded, however, was was not the usual litany of product benefits. Rather, what was conspicuous about this ad was that it gave so few details about the car in question. Rather – aptly enough for the radio – it reduced all of the usual sales pitch to just 30 or so seconds of its engine sound. This distinctive throaty roar is, the ad implied, all you need to know. But Maserati – among other prestige carmakers – may be too late. The thrill of the acceleration, the smell of the petrol, the gentle, almost inaudible hum of the battery – if boy racers love to rev their engines, if the thrill of a live Formula One experience is dominated by the guttural scream of all that horsepower, the future of the car, in indisputably being electric, is set to be much, much quieter. That, in the decades to come, is going to make a profound difference to our cityscapes; after all, much of the noise that defines the urban environment comes from our vehicles, most of which will be hushed. Ironically, electric engines – and their lack of noise – are going to allow for the creation of temporary inner-city tracks for Formula E racing too. But the quiet is posing all sorts of problems before then, not least, it’s argued, for pedestrians. One 2015 study by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association concluded that people are 40 percent more likely to be hit by an electric or hybrid-engined vehicle than a conventionally-engined one; another study, by the University of California, found that subjects had to be 74 percent closer to a car to hear it if it had an electric engine rather than a combustion one. So don’t enjoy the silence just yet. Last year the European Union – the legislative body overseeing one of the world’s biggest single car markets – introduced new rules that stated traditional engines must make 25 percent less noise, around four decibels’ worth. But also that – from this summer – new silent electric cars must also be fitted with some kind of sound generator that kicks in below 12 mph, basically to prevent pedestrians from walking out in front of them. Perplexingly, legislators argue that above this speed even electric cars will make enough noise – through their tyres, wind resistance and the like – to warn of their coming.
So get ready to talk a lot about the AVAS in your car. That’s the acoustic vehicle alerting system, also known as waterproof speakers fixed behind the grill of your car – and not to play some booming bass music. These may play a part in ushering in what might be considered a profound societal good – quiet streets. Yet, since there’s no industry-wide agreement on what AVAS should sound like, at least not yet, there’s a possibility that the generic engine noise we’re all familiar with will be replaced by a cacophony of chirrups, beeps, buzzes, whirs and whines. The issue is compounded by the fact that – as that Maserati ad suggested – each car brand still wants its own distinctive sound. “It’s a fundamental aspect of the character of every Ferrari,” as Nicola Boari, Ferrari’s chief brand diversification officer, puts it. “It’s vital in expressing the company’s emphasis on performance and represents its racing heritage. Each model is individually engineered to give it a recognisable sound, just like a musical instrument. The sound is taken into consideration from the moment we start to engineer a new engine.” Likewise, at Aston Martin the marketing department will suggest the kind of sound it wants from a proposed car, independent juries are used to assess preferred sounds ‘blind’ – including those of competitor companies – and advanced computer simulation tools are used to work out if such a sound can be achieved with the engine. Most customers want what they feel to be an Aston Martin sound – put a Ferrari sound in an Aston Martin and it would just be wrong. Certainly, while Boari argues that customers are unlikely to buy a specific car for its engine sound – this is more something the driver learns to love as expressive of performance – sports car manufacturers are increasingly taking every step to make sure that sound is transmitted to the driver, while having to find the right balance with keeping the cabin environment comfortable to be in. In developing its LFA Lexus, for example, worked with Yamaha – the instrument maker, not the engine-builder – to help develop components that directed engine sound to the cabin. Porsche’s ‘Sound Symposer’ is a tube housing a diaphragm and a valve which, in sport mode, opens to amplify the engine sound. With Ferrari’s front-engined cars – in which the engine is relatively more distant from the cabin and isolated by the front bulkhead – special tubes are used to channel a small amount of sound from the intake plenum to the cabin. Ferrari stresses that the sound of its engines are never enhanced. Yet this is not always the case for other manufacturers, such is the emphasis on engine sound as a crucial aspect to the driving experience. In recent years BMW, for example, has found that the chassis of its M5 was so effective at isolating the cabin from outside noise that it chose to play an exterior recording of the engine through the car’s stereo, the precise sample played selected according to RPM. For some of its models Volkswagon too has used what it calls a ‘Soundaktor’, a dedicated speaker located near the engine’s throttle body. But now we face an electric future in which all engine sound will, in effect, have to be enhanced, if there’s any sound at all. Certainly John Caress’s job has taken a turn. He’s vehicle line director for the Rapide E, Aston Martin’s flagship electric vehicle. And, like other auto engineers, while placing considerable emphasis on the particular quality of the sound of the engine, he also does all he can to minimise cabin sound in almost every other aspect of our experience of a car. “Silence is what you normally want, in a luxury saloon, for example,” he says. “But [with the advent of the electric engine] now we have a question we’ve not had to ask ourselves in the 106 years of our history”. The question: what does an Aston Martin electric engine sound like? Can it sound anything like its distinctive combustion engines? And his tough answer? It sounds like nothing at all. “Drivers of performance cars do connect with the sound of the vehicle – the exhaust note, the engine – and not having that feature anymore means we just have to encourage them to connect to the other senses,” he argues. “I’m a huge petrolhead and I’m not regretful of the loss of the engine sound because there are other pay-offs. Technology evolves. It’s like the shift between having buttons on your mobile phone and then a touch screen. The user adapts. And I don’t miss my old Nokia either. Every brand will respond in a way that’s right for it, but we don’t want to provide a fake experience – there can’t be some V12 rumble when there’s no V12 there.” Aston Martin isn’t, of course, the only company looking to find a new acoustic means of expressing who they are – a sound signature in a world of silent vehicles, or, conversely, one legally obliged to make some kind of sound even if near silence is technically feasible. Harley-Davidson – for the legislation applies to motorcycles too – has gone for a straight electronic replication of the distinctive muscular ‘hog’ sound for its LiveWire electric model. Bizarrely, this spring Mercedes-AMG hired the American rock band Linkin Park to help develop the right sound for its electric super-cars. But this isn’t all just about protecting pedestrians. Nor, Jaguar and other makers argue, is some kind of engine sound just for drivers’ pleasure. That’s part of it. But it’s crucial to their safety too. It has given its new I-Pace car – its first all electric model – an AVAS, like a gently rising generator-style hum, but also what it calls Active Sound Design, which, as with a conventional engine, makes more cabin sound the more the vehicle accelerates. There’s silence if you want it; in ‘calm’ mode the ‘engine’ can barely be heard; in ‘dynamic’ mode it’s full-on race track – but such modes are designed to give drivers a form of auditory feedback about the state of the vehicle, one we’re entirely used to getting. Acoustic engineers will now, in effect, have to score an electric car much like a composer scores a movie. “It’s a matter of looking at the level of interaction between the driver and the car and whether a sound that reflects what the car is about adds to that interaction,” explains Iain Suffied, NVH technical specialist for Jaguar and the man who led the development of its Active Sound Design. “We’re using technology to extend the bandwidth of what the car can do, from silent to a sound that gives the kind of engagement that, without it, means you just don’t drive the car in the same way. As humans we like experiences – and silence tends to be uninspiring.” Indeed, silence isn’t golden for all. The future looks set to embody a pay-off: more relaxing urban living, but perhaps less exciting driving. Listen closely for your preference.

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire Autumn 2021

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