The future of sound design in electric cars

Sound design in electric cars

Our head of design Lars Ohlendorf answers our questions on electro-mobility and the future of sound design in electric cars.

EU regulations have forced car brands to ask themselves how do they want their electric vehicles to sound. It has been mainly a matter of pedestrian security. But what about customer experience and brand positioning? What role does sound design play in this new world of silent cars?

Sound design has long played an important role for cars. How does the engine sound, how do the doors sound, and yes, how do the indicators sound? On the basis of these stimuli, users assign a wide variety of attributes to the car: sporty, aggressive, defensive, safe, small, large, etc. And that’s exactly why so much work is put into this. No matter how safe a car may be – we won’t believe it when the door goes “piff”, but we will believe it when it goes “umpf”. And now the central sound instance of a car is replaced: the engine. This forces everyone to rethink. Consumers must ask themselves how they want to experience their environment. Manufacturers have to consider what design accents they want to add to the artificially added engine sound and what goals they want to achieve with it. And politics must ultimately combine the demands of consumers and manufacturers. No easy task. But I do see opportunities here for a better-sounding world. Because even with added sounds, the acoustic emissions of electric cars will decrease rather than increase.

In the digital era, personalization has been vital to improve our experiences as users. Do you think we will be able to change our car sound as we change our ringtones in the near future? Or even better, do you imagine our cars changing or adapting its sound according to our mood or perhaps the outside weather?

I see great potential in this idea of personalization. If only because in some congested areas, we are already talking more about mobility than about the respective means of transport – let alone the perhaps privately owned vehicle. If in the near future we will be traveling more with rental vehicles than with our own, the individual, the own, will become portable: I could use a personal log-in to transfer my profile data to the respective means of transport, that navigation destinations, entertainment programs, mood lighting and much more would be available from the beginning. Of course, this data set would also include my preferences of system sounds, yes, maybe even my own. This would allow the driver to define the sound, not the manufacturer. And that would be a logical development in terms of this overarching mobility concept.

What role does “culture” plays in sound design, specifically in this context of electric cars? And conversely, what role could sound designers and brands play to change or modified “gender paradigms” or even “cultural paradigms”?

Culture plays an immensely important role in design. Because design is both an expression of culture and a criticism of culture. Accordingly, every successful sound design is an expression of a new culture and contrasts the old one in equal measure. This field of tension is what makes the design of functional sounds in particular so exciting. For example, one of the greatest cultural changes in sound has been set in motion by the church, regardless of religion. The church has made cultural time audible. Before, there was only natural time, audible at the cock crow, the hustle and bustle of the streets and finally, late at night, the nightingale’s song. For the Christian world, religious time came with the church bells, which structured the day in ora et labora, in vivere et mori. A tremendous structural change!
But this intentionally great example also calls for humility: a new starting motor sound is a beautiful thing, but it is not quite enough for a cultural revolution.

How do you imagine the urban soundscapes in the future, assuming that electric or self-driving cars will be the standard in the automotive industry? Do you imagine having quieter cities in the near future? Do you think electric cars will cause a significant impact on reducing noise pollution?

As long as we do not consider our natural sound landscape as something valuable and worth protecting, our cities will become louder and louder and sound more technical. And there’s no way the advent of e-cars could prevent that. There are numerous other developments in mobility: cargo drones, for Amazon delivery to shipping containers, as well as car-like small aircraft like air taxis for example. For all their engineering skills, how much quieter can they be than helicopters? In addition to that there is a rising population in congested areas, denser building development, more air conditioning technology. Considering that I am not sure that the cities of the future will be any quieter. Rather, I think that the urban soundscape urgently needs to be put on the political agenda. Buendnis90/Green – anyone?