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
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