Ok, fast forward with me 20-30 years from now. I always like to think of the future as a perfectly balanced tech-oriented green society. Not like in the movies, Blade Runner especially! I believe that we will turn the term “utopia” upside down for a total balanced win.
What does traffic look like? Are we driving cars or they drive us? Do most of the population travel around in tubes? What sounds will billions of new cars make? The last question is very important, for safety reasons, and because it’s the regulation now.
What is certain to me is that every year, there’ll be less and less familiar engine sounds. Jocks revving the engines at the lights, tuners blasting pure gasoline-fueled roars from wide exhaust pipes… Ugh. Thank you progress.
Instead, what will we hear? Many sound visionaries gave us some idea imagining what cars of the future will sound like (Back to the future, I, Robot, Total Recall and many more). Whistling, ufo-like, futuristic sounds. It was great for a few minutes of action footage but is it something that we can live with? Every single day?
Think of the scale. If all cars would sound like UFO’s, driving on a highway would feel like an extraterrestrial attack.
What electric car makers should think about in regards to sound
Sound is the product of a resonating source and travels through the air, liquid or solid surface. There’s no sound in space (space battles sound designers I’m looking at you). Louder the sound - it travels further. Imagine that instead of air we have vanilla pudding, it’ll be easier for you to visualize how sound travels from the source wiggling the pudding.
And, hearing is the only sense we cannot shut out, but our brain does it for us. If it's too loud it gets our attention, but do we really need to be woken up again at 3 am by some distant engine roar?
EV sound is mostly needed for the pedestrian for awareness and orientation that a vehicle on the road is near, as the insides of the cabin would probably be soundproof. Most new EV’s would probably have designs that provide almost no resistance to the air so by design they will be almost silent.
In today’s cacophony of all the sounds our society makes it would not be ok for everyone to be disturbed, except for those who really need to hear it. Make it smart, near-field, quiet most of the time, but loud enough to send a warning and acknowledge presence when needed.
Today we use the gas pedal almost as a volume fader, the more we press, it gets louder. Do we really need to just copy that mechanics to totally customizable, technology infused EV’s? No. Do we need to disturb nature as we drive through it? Actually, there’s no need even for that. Let’s be creative.
Let’s combine the usage of sound with other technological advancements: cameras, radars, lidars, sonars… Whatever becomes the norm. For example, if the radar detects there’s no one around, the car goes to quiet mode.
Let the sound become a living thing that adapts to the situation on the road. If the pedestrian does not react, make it even louder, turn the special warning sound. There are many layers and situations where sound can help both the driver and pedestrian. Make the horn automatic and with a different sound, so it won't be abused as it is today.
Add the speakers that can be omni-directional when needed but also silent when not. We have the freedom to manipulate sound here as much as we want. Let’s make it super pleasant.
Type of sound
In many breakthroughs, we copied nature. There are millions of birds and we find most of their sounds beautiful. Being in the forest we would hear tens or even hundreds of different sounds. We enjoy it, it’s a therapeutic experience. Let’s use the same approach for our cars of the future.
Noise or articulated sound
TV static, radio waves, vacuum cleaner, drill… Those are the noises of the 20th century. But as we turn away from noisy machines towards quiet devices, some of those silent helpers should make a sound, for security reasons.
Computer blips, lasers and other sounds of the 80’s have transitioned us to articulated sounds of smartphone notifications and other sounds we’re surrounded with today. There’s no global consensus on your notification sounds. Assembled focus groups could have decided on the one choice from many other sounds that sound designers have submitted for the next Messenger sound.
Most articulated sounds of today produced by electric-powered devices are made by sound oscillators (hardware or their software emulations) found in synthesizers. They’re making the sound in a way that their circuitry inside changes between two states very quickly. This oscillation produces sound which then could be amplified, manipulated and voila we have the sound effects for audio-visual medium. Besides being manipulated through a chain of electrical circuits of sound changing machines, these sounds could be recorded/sampled and further changed on many many different levels. The pit of no bottom. I lost 20 years playing inside this pit. It’s so much fun, endless exploration.
How cool would it be for the next car to have a chain of sound oscillators inside, which is reading pressure data on the acceleration and brake pedals, external weather conditions, curvature of the road, the type of surface we’re driving on… And many other data which could affect the way our future cars will sound while driving or still.
Sound oscillators besides noise, soundscapes and other non-musical sounds could also produce sounds that have pitch when they vibrate on a specific frequency. Our ears perceive pitch as defined sound which fits into our audible frequency range. We went even that far to define specific frequencies as tones, later musical notes and scales which we’re enjoying since many many eons ago.
Please don’t let the cars be musical. I’m strongly against this. Imagine the orchestra where everyone plays their own tune. Catastrophical. Now is the best time to shout this from my window on the 6th floor.
If there’s no global consensus soon we could be invaded by the musical chaos on the streets if we don’t stop it.
But since future cars are smart and could be tuned to the extent where every car is synchronized here’s my crazy pitch:
- There are 7 days in the week and 7 basic notes we can assign car noises/sounds with exact pitch to be made on each day.
- Monday - C
- Tuesday - D
- Wednesday - E
- Thursday - F
- Friday - G
- Saturday - A
- Sunday - B
If all cars on the road are NOT tuned to the same note and are NOT producing sounds consonant to it, there would be a mess if cars become musical.
Future cars will make the sound dictated by humans, invented by sound designers and music composers and visionaries (hi Hans!). Please make the car a living thing that produces soothing, helpful, beautiful sounds (or noises) that can fit into our vision of a clean future where everything around us feels soothing, enriching, inspiring and in tune with nature. There’s a new EV species in our environment, let’s make it sound friendly while not invading our senses.
Say no to sound pollution, say yes to the next evolution of traffic sound.
About the author:
Danilo Grbic is a composer / producer / engineer and music professional with 20 years of experience in music / media / marketing / production / startups. Passionate about technology and supporter of renewable and green lifestyle in the 21st century.