The deafening silence of the electric car – Companies

Electric vehicle manufacturers are now looking to “remake” the all-too-pure silence of electric cars to rediscover the internal combustion engine car experience.

When the first compact discs were released just 40 years ago, some classical music fans were surprised. They found the digital sound to be very pure, but very clean and weightless. It lacked that warmth and that binder that characterize the analog sound and some even regretted breathing and even the small clicks of their vinyl pressings. Manufacturers then worked to “re-soil” the overly pure sound that wet the grooves of CDs.

When the first compact discs were released just 40 years ago, some classical music fans were surprised. They found the digital sound to be very pure, but very clean and weightless. It lacked that warmth and that binder that characterize the analog sound and some even regretted breathing and even the small clicks of their vinyl pressings. Manufacturers then worked to “re-soil” the overly pure sound that wet the grooves of CDs. We are witnessing a phenomenon comparable to the electric car. Compared to its ancestor, the thermal car, it is not only content with not emitting carbon while driving, but also reduces noise pollution by being almost silent at low speeds. If this last point is an undeniable advantage (which could eventually make our cities less noisy), it still has one major flaw. By not emitting noise, electric vehicles become silent predators. Because if the noise of thermal vehicles is a nuisance, it has the immense virtue of signaling itself to others. A safety issue in cities that is all the more crucial as more and more non-drivers – pedestrians or cyclists – circulate by phone, checking their smartphone or listening to music. That’s why electric vehicle manufacturers are now looking, like the CD makers of their day, to “re-soil” the all-too-pure silence of electric cars to rediscover the thermal car experience (analogous, one might say). But, contrary to what one might think, this is no small feat. Because the sound emitted by cars is not a simple beep like a telephone ringing or the signal to fasten your seat belt. In fact, it is a complex and multidimensional signal that tells us not only about the presence of a vehicle, but about its direction, its speed, if it is accelerating or decelerating, if it is advancing or retreating… in short, our brain, trained by good hundred years driving the combustion car, deciphers all this information forming a kind of sound protection network. Thus, some today advocate the imposition of a minimum noise level on new vehicles, just as a ceiling was imposed on old ones. But there’s nothing natural about making electric vehicles louder. It really is a real headache. What sound level to adopt so that it is audible enough without overloading? Should we imitate the sound of thermal cars – by what is called “skeuomorphism”, that is, the virtual reproduction of a real sound, like certain ringtones that resume the “dring” of old telephones? Should we, on the contrary, clear new specific sonic territories to create a new sonic grammar as in Blade Runner, for example? With a new challenge for each car manufacturer: to be able to create their own sound signature – as Harley-Davidson managed to do with their motorcycles – becoming a new identifier for their brand and models. But beyond the sound design issue that arises for each particular manufacturer, the puzzle is in danger of becoming collective. How are all these sounds from different styles going to cohabit on a city scale? The New World Symphony could very well be cacophonous. And the deafening silence of electric cars.

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