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As a recent Time Magazine article pointed out, electric vehicles (EVs) are shockingly quiet because their motors have few moving parts. As the author found out when he drove an all-electric Mustang Mach-E, he felt he “was driving a giant motorized iPad than the electrified successor to an iconic American muscle car.” That might sound like a blessing for urbanites who have to deal with traffic noise. However, the lack of noise can actually create added risk for drivers who rely on engine noise to get a sense of their speed, but most importantly, pedestrians and bicyclists who listen for oncoming traffic.
Because of EVs’ relatively silent state, pedestrians and cyclists have a hard time hearing them coming. Before governments around the world began requiring automakers that their EVs had to make some type of sound or noise, collisions were commonplace. In 2018, for example, a Japanese man and his guide dog were fatally struck by a reversing EV. This speaks on the reality that the visually-impaired and partially-sighted often rely on some kind of sound for spatial awareness.
According to a study by the UK-based Guide Dogs for the Blind Association quoted by Futurism, pedestrians were 40% more likely to be hit by a hybrid or electric car than a car with a combustion engine. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under the Obama administration called for car makers to require all hybrid cars and EVs to produce noise when travelling under 19 MPH.
For decades, automakers have made their marketing rely on the alluring rumble of a revving engine, especially in sports cars and trucks. Ram Chandrasekaran, a transportation analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie, told Time that the consumer has a lot of expectations for what a car should sound like. “[Even] for a regular person who doesn’t care about V-8 engines or manual transmissions, there’s still an innate expectation that when you push the pedal, you hear an auditory response,” he said.
EVs are on the cusp of widespread adoption. Analysts predict their share of U.S. auto sales will quadruple to 8.5% in the next four years. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring the sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035. Because of this, specialists are getting a unique chance to create the sounds that will dominate highways and cities throughout the 21st century, just as the constant drone of internal-combustion engines dominated those of the 20th.
While EVs aren’t completely green — battery production and electricity generation exact an environmental toll — the scientific consensus is that they’re less harmful than gasoline cars. To meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, 90% of cars on U.S. roads must be electric by 2050. But right now, only about two in every 100 cars sold in the country are nonhybrid EVs. And in order to sell, EVs have to drive well and far enough to meet people’s needs. And, to some, sounding good as well.
Worldwide, EV sales reportedly grew by 40% last year to 2.8 million vehicles from 2 million in 2019 — despite the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, shares in EV maker Tesla soared by over 700%; Ford launched its flagship Mach-E as part of a $22 billion electrification push; and GM declared early this year that it will make only electric vehicles by 2035.
Today’s EV buyers are largely what technology analysts call early adopters. Convincing skeptics will require advancements not just in performance, range, and recharging infrastructure, but successful marketing too. And as Time noted, that’s where sound designers come in. Regulators around the world require EVs to emit some kind of sound for safety reasons, but they’ve left it up to automakers to decide exactly what that sound should be.
“It’s kind of like when [the 1993 film] Jurassic Park was made, and they had to come up with the sound of a dinosaur,” Jonathan Pierce, a senior manager of experiential R&D at Harman, an automotive-technology company, told Time, noting that no one had ever heard a dinosaur.