The Sound of Si­lence

‘Which­ever way de­sign­ers end up tak­ing the ar­ti­fi­cial noise co­nun­drum, I hope no­body tries to sim­ply repli­cate the orig­i­nal ICE sound. Yes, what­ever comes out will be ar­ti­fi­cial, but, please, let’s not pre­tend that things are the same as be­fore,’ says des

Bike India - - FEATURE -

One ad­van­tage of elec­tric ve­hi­cles, on top of the re­duc­tion in harm­ful emis­sions, is lower noise pol­lu­tion. But how­ever wel­come that might be, in both ru­ral and ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, one side-ef­fect is that it also cre­ates the po­ten­tial for ac­ci­dents. if pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists can no longer hear ve­hi­cles ap­proach­ing, they have no warn­ing of im­pend­ing dan­ger — a risk that is el­e­vated for chil­dren, the sight-im­paired, and the el­derly. it was fas­ci­nat­ing to watch two light­ning elec­tric gP bikes try to weave through a crowded pad­dock with al­most zero re­ac­tion from the spec­ta­tors, an is­sue which sub­se­quently re­quired the fit­ting of horns. if it’s true that ‘loud pipes save lives’, as many mo­tor­cy­clists pro­claim, you can imag­ine the con­se­quences of hav­ing vir­tu­ally no noise at all.

as a re­sult, many coun­tries have taken the step of im­pos­ing manda­tory au­di­ble alerts at low speeds. in the Us, a rul­ing by the na­tional High­way traf­fic safety ad­min­is­tra­tion came into ef­fect in Fe­bru­ary this year, re­quir­ing all elec­tric and hy­brid ve­hi­cles to emit a sound that is au­di­ble over other white noise be­low 18.6 mph (30 km/h). Full com­pli­ance is re­quired by septem­ber 2020, al­though ex­actly why the Us reg­u­la­tory body used a met­ric ceil­ing for their law is un­clear. Many other coun­tries are in the process of in­tro­duc­ing sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion,

but with their own in­di­vid­ual stan­dards. Glob­al­iza­tion, it seems, has yet to be­come ab­so­lute. Some na­tions pro­pose ra­tioning the op­tions to gov­ern­men­tap­proved sound­tracks, while oth­ers rec­og­nize that the sound of a ve­hi­cle is part of its in­di­vid­u­al­ity. The en­gine/ ex­haust notes on ICE (in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine) ve­hi­cles are of­ten unique to spe­cific brands, and man­u­fac­tur­ers will no doubt be keen to main­tain that fea­ture, even with the in­tro­duc­tion of al­ter­na­tive power sources.

In fact, it may not just be elec­tric or hy­brid ve­hi­cles that are tar­gets of the new min­i­mum-noise-level leg­is­la­tion. Man­u­fac­tur­ers of the new en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly ve­hi­cles point out the huge im­prove­ments in ICE de­sign in re­cent years that have made some reg­u­lar ve­hi­cles as quiet as electrics and hy­brids. Thus, they ar­gue with rea­son, that any new leg­is­la­tion should equally ap­ply to them. So, in the fu­ture, your Honda four might be re­quired to bleep as you go along too.

Re­searchers have been aware of the is­sue for some time. In 2010, War­wick Univer­sity in the UK con­ducted a study on elec­tric ve­hi­cle noise through a de­liv­ery van known as ELVIN (Elec­tric Ve­hi­cle with In­ter­ac­tive Noise). Invit­ing pub­lic feed­back, ELVIN drove around the Univer­sity’s cam­pus play­ing dif­fer­ent sounds, in­clud­ing one re­sem­bling a 1950s sci-fi movie space­ship. The fact that ELVIN was green and some­what re­sem­bled a bugeyed mon­ster may have some­thing to do with that par­tic­u­lar choice. While this was no doubt a fun and fund­ing-at­trac­tive project, the amount of public­ity about its ex­is­tence seems to over­shadow the con­clu­sions. If there were any, the univer­sity seems to have kept them to them­selves, or their spon­sors.

Even be­fore the elec­tric gen­er­a­tion, acous­tic en­gi­neers have been toy­ing with the sounds our reg­u­lar ICE ve­hi­cles make. Mercedes-Benz have been pip­ing ar­ti­fi­cial noise, such as up-shift blips, into the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment of their sportier mod­els for some years through a “sound gen­er­a­tor” and are cer­tainly not alone in the prac­tice. Au­dio en­gi­neer­ing has be­come a sci­ence to it­self and elec­tric ve­hi­cles take that to an en­tirely new level. In the fu­ture, there will be lit­tle, if any, con­nec­tion be­tween the noise a ve­hi­cle cre­ates when in mo­tion and the sound it ac­tu­ally emits.

Mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers have also been play­ing with our eardrums. Gov­ern­ment noise level tests are typ­i­cally mea­sured in a rolling sit­u­a­tion, so some en­gi­neers de­cided to ex­ploit that by tweak­ing the ex­haust to give louder throt­tle blips in neu­tral that when in gear. It’s a show-off thing for im­press­ing your friends, or an­noy­ing your neigh­bours, be­fore you pull away. Hardly at the same level as Audi’s test-sens­ing diesel scan­dal, but it’s likely the au­thor­i­ties would take a dim view of the prac­tice and change their mea­sur­ing meth­ods if they haven’t al­ready done so.

So what sound should elec­tric bikes make? This dilemma was first in­tro­duced to me dur­ing the early stages of an elec­tric mega-scooter project a few years back. Seem­ingly, any­thing was pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing a sound re­sem­bling a Har­ley-David­son. For that, the com­pany would pre­sum­ably need to pur­chase the rights, H-D hav­ing long since patented their unique “potato potato” sound.

Har­ley-David­son have, in turn, en­tered the fray with their own LiveWire project, an elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cle that will ap­par­ently en­ter pro­duc­tion next year. When the pro­to­type made an ap­pear­ance at the 2015 Mi­lan EICMA, it was set on a rolling road, with a suit­ably leather-clad model demon­strat­ing the sound. Har­leyDavid­son have clearly been through the same “but what should it sound like?” man­age­ment meet­ings as my mega-scooter com­pany and War­wick Univer­sity, but their so­lu­tion had to be manly and as Amer­i­can as mom’s ap­ple pie. They stumped for a jet en­gine, which, you’d have to ad­mit, is not a bad way to go. The re­al­ity, as I can at­test from Mi­lan, was pretty con­vinc­ing, al­though hav­ing been wo­ken up by two Y2Ks fir­ing up out­side my ho­tel room dur­ing the Leg­end of the Mo­tor­cy­cle event, maybe not the ul­ti­mate sonic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Which­ever way de­sign­ers end up tak­ing the ar­ti­fi­cial noise co­nun­drum, I hope no­body tries to sim­ply repli­cate the orig­i­nal ICE sound. Yes, what­ever comes out will be ar­ti­fi­cial, but, please, let’s not pre­tend that things are the same as be­fore. The world is mov­ing on and we need to em­brace what­ever the fu­ture has in store. But with­out the drama, en­ergy and en­gi­neer­ing mag­nif­i­cence of a pis­ton-en­gined ma­chine, no­body should be al­lowed to fake the sound.

Each mo­tor­cy­cle has a unique im­age, and needs a unique sound ― but which one?

Har­leyDavid­son LiveWire at the 2015 Mi­lan EICMA was shown on a rolling road to demon­strate the jet plane sound ELVIN is an elec­tric van de­signed and op­er­ated by War­wick Univer­sity to test pub­lic re­ac­tion to dif­fer­ent au­di­ble alerts

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