Audi RSQA fearsome sound ripped through the busy street, turning the head of every passer-by. Earthquake? Explosion? Apocalypse? Actually, it was the sound of a small boy in a big red Ferrari 499.

Ten years old and with his foot stretched to reach the throttle, it was an unexpected thrill. An almighty noise and an indelible memory. But by the time he is old enough for his own supercar, it may sound very different.

Fred liked the Ferrari. He’s currently looking for a ride in a Bugatti Veyron and Lamborghini’s Reventon or Murcielago. He is also fond of the odd Aston Martin and Audi’s R8. And that might be a good thing because an experimental version of the R8 is presently leading electric-powered performance cars into the first corner. Perhaps surprisingly, its running sound is among its key design criteria.

I have to thank Calrec for a recent website post that flagged this up. Ever alert to interesting audio-related news, the Calrec guys had uncovered a video post from Audi explaining that the ‘engine’ sound has been three years in the making. Without it, it seems that the car would be dangerously quiet. And that’s  just for starters…

Start your engines

Fred‘We speak of quiet cars when an electric car is driven at a speed between zero and 25kph (15.5mph),’ explains Dr Ralf Kunkel, Head of Acoustics at Audi. ‘Up to this speed, electric cars are virtually silent as they glide through the streets. Noise from the rolling of the tyres and from the slipstream comes to the forefront above this speed, at which point an electric car is no longer significantly more quiet than a conventional vehicle. The acousticians are currently hard at work on the sound design of the Audi e-tron.’

In fact, the R8 e-tron is just one of a family of electric and hybrid concept cars introduced by Audi in 2009, along with the A1 e-tron, e-tron Spyder and A3 e-tron. The second e-tron model appeared in 2010 in Detroit, foreshadowing a mid-engined production model rumoured to launch in 2012 – the R8 e-tron, using four electric motors (one per wheel) is capable of giving 200kph (124mph) and able to travel 150 miles (240km) on full charge.

The sound of the internal combustion engine in its various guises has so far given us the essential soundtrack to our auto addiction, from the distant rumble of the motorway to the scream of a Formula 1 straight. But with the electric car gaining ground, this is no longer a given.

Without sound, a performance car becomes less exciting and a road car far more dangerous. As a result, organisations for the blind worldwide are campaigning for quiet cars to be given a voice – and they are being heard, as countries such as the US and Japan are drafting laws governing ultra quiet electric cars.

In the UK, the University of Warwick is also taking sound design for ‘silent’ cars very seriously. Its WMG operation has developed a test vehicle that is in daily use trialling different sounds in real-world situations.

ElvinCalled Elvin (Electric Vehicle with Interactive Noise), it is a major research project looking into the safety issues linked to the lack of sound from electric vehicles.

‘There has been a lot of talk about having to introduce sounds to electric vehicles in order to make them safe,’ Professor Paul Jennings begins. ‘As another road user, you are made aware of the presence of another vehicle by its sound as well as sight.

‘Elvin is used around campus where we have the opportunity to try him out with different sounds.’

He may not have supercar looks, but Elvin could set the pace for the sound of cars to come. WMG has centres in the UK, India, China, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore and Thailand, providing advice to many overseas governments.

The university’s Elvin website offers an open invitation to listen to sounds in development and give feedback.

Sound signatures

‘It is not just a matter of safety, but also a question of how the Audi of the future should sound,’ says Dr Kunkel.

RSQ‘The sounds used for spaceships in films are reminiscent of car sounds, yet are also very different, making this a rather interesting approach,’ he says. ‘An Audi will not sound like an airplane with jet engines or a spaceship from a science fiction film any time soon, but the sound will be new and unusual. The Audi RSQ used in the Hollywood film I, Robot gives an indication of how an Audi might sound in the future.’

‘Sound is a major part of the brand of a vehicle,’ agrees Dr Rebecca Cain of WMG Experiential Engineering. ‘As an electric vehicle can potentially sound like anything, manufacturers are having to think quite carefully about how their vehicles should sound.’

Enter NoViSim, where the WMG Experiential Engineering Team (at Warwick) is exploring which sounds should be used in electric vehicles, and how they should vary ‘with vehicle and scenario parameters’.

‘The sky is the limit – you can have any sound you like,’ says NoViSim Director, Mark Allman-Ward. ‘NoViSim is about developing tools to allow you to design and evaluate a sound in a very efficient way.’

The lab hosts collaborative research between academia and industry to generate new knowledge and skills for business, society and economy. Calling on a well-upholstered sound studio (as in £50m) and partners Brüel & Kjær, ECTunes and Meridian Audio, NoViSim (the Noise and Vibration Simulator) was created for the automotive industry – providing an immersive environment for the occupants to experience the sounds and vibrations as if driving a vehicle in real life, and in the correct perceptual context.

It seems that sound design for electric vehicles has slipped smoothly and quietly into the fast lane. And, like the game sound industry, has created a new category of sound designer in its wake.

Electric dreams

SupercarBreaking the electric vehicle sound issue into three elements – the first two being safety and branding, Rebecca Cain adds environmental considerations as a third: ‘We could be facing quite a serious problem in that we could be about to change how our towns and cities sound,’ she warns.

It’s easy to see that she’s right. If proof were needed, you need look no further than the mobile phone in your pocket. No public outing is safe from the mobile’s onslaught of music clips and comedy tones. And those of us who have stuck with the ‘old phone’ tone can’t tell which is being called without that telltale vibration.

Nor is the modern ringtone the only precedent to the electric car dilemma. Just as the ubiquity of mobile phones raised questions of ring tones, the use of natural gas asked them of smell. Colourless and odourless, natural gas was another silent killer in the making.

Having pondered the best scent to add, butyl mercaptan won the energy industry’s vote. There were more palatable options than sulphur, or rotten eggs, but nothing hit the mark as well as the smell of gas.

It is also worth remembering how other ‘replacement’ technologies have worked out. From the futile attempts of early transistor amplifiers to offer electric guitarists a ‘valve sound’, to the Hammond organ's ambition to offer an alternative to the church pipe organ and the Clavinet’s bid to replace the spinet, these rarely follow the script.

With all of this in mind, could it be that the car of the future will sound more like a Ferrari or the Starship Enterprise? Or will we be changing the sound of our cars to suit our moods?

See also:
It’s All in The Game (Sound design for Games)


Last/Next Blog

TwitterGoogle BookmarksRedditLinkedIn Pin It

Fast-and-Wide Blog

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20 An independent news site and blog for professional audio and related businesses, provides a platform for discussion and information exchange in one of the world's fastest-moving technology-based industries.
Fast Touch:
Author: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Fast Thinking:Marketing:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Web: Latitude Hosting