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Electric Cars Can Sound Like Anything. That’s a Huge Opportunity to Craft the Soundscape of the Future

11 minute read

Pulling Ford’s new all-electric Mustang Mach-E out of a Brooklyn garage late this winter, I felt a little duped. It seemed more like I was driving a giant motorized iPad than the electrified successor to an iconic American muscle car. Just a few weeks earlier, the company’s sound designers told me about the lengths to which they had gone to design and digitally produce the perfect engine noise, experimenting with recordings of electric guitars, Formula E race-car engine sounds and the hum of high-voltage power lines. But inside the loaner car’s cabin, I didn’t hear anything at all. Then, while messing around on the vehicle’s touchscreen, I found—and immediately pressed—an all-too-tempting button to engage “unbridled mode.” Next time I hit the accelerator, the car took off, emitting the throaty, electric roar of a cyberpunk spaceship. Now that was more like it.

Because their motors have few moving parts, electric vehicles (EVs) are shockingly quiet. That might sound like a blessing for city dwellers and others sick of traffic noise, but it can create added risk for drivers (who rely on engine noise to get a sense of their speed) and pedestrians (who listen for oncoming traffic). For automakers, it also compromises decades of marketing based on the alluring rumble of a revving engine, especially in sports cars and trucks. “As a car person, there are a lot of expectations for what a car should sound like,” says Ram Chandrasekaran, a transportation analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “[Even] for a regular person who doesn’t care about V-8 engines or manual transmissions, there’s still an innate expectation that when you push the pedal, you hear an auditory response.”

So companies like Ford have turned to elite teams of sound designers to create new noises that play from EVs’ internal and external speakers, making them safer and more marketable. With EVs on the cusp of widespread adoption—analysts predict their share of U.S. auto sales will quadruple to 8.5% in the next four years—these specialists are getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create the sounds that will dominate 21st century highways and cities, just as the constant drone of internal-combustion engines dominated those of the 20th.

The sound designers who spoke to TIME for this story, from companies like BMW, Audi and Ford, often framed their work as an effort to encode their brands’ ethos into a sound. There’s precedent for that kind of auditory corporate soul-searching, from ESPN’s six-note fanfare to the Yahoo yodel. But there’s greater urgency to the automakers’ work: the longer it takes for people to switch to electric vehicles, the more damage internal-combustion engines will do to our planet. While EVs aren’t completely green—battery production and electricity generation exact an environmental toll—the scientific consensus is that they’re less harmful than gasoline cars. Ninety percent of cars on U.S. roads must be electric by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, but right now, only about 2 in every 100 cars sold in the country are nonhybrid EVs. And in order to sell, EVs have to drive well and far enough to meet people’s needs—as well as sound good to prospective buyers.

EV sales grew by 40% worldwide last year, to 2.8 million vehicles from 2 million in 2019, despite the global recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shares in EV maker Tesla soared by over 700% in 2020 after record-shattering production numbers (though their value has since declined). Meanwhile, Chinese electric-car brands like Nio and BYD have unveiled new electric sedans to compete on the global level. Traditional automakers have largely acknowledged that the days of internal-combustion engines are numbered. Ford launched its flagship Mach-E late last year as part of a $22 billion electrification push. BMW aims to double its EV sales in 2021. GM declared early this year that it will make only electric vehicles by 2035. Volkswagen, which embraced EVs after 2015’s infamous “Dieselgate” scandal, could outpace Tesla’s EV sales as soon as next year, according to Deutsche Bank analysts. U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory, and the likely tightening of mileage standards, is likely to spark further growth in EVs.

Today’s EV buyers are largely what technology analysts call “early adopters”: people who see the benefits of a new innovation despite kinks yet to be hammered out. Convincing electro-skeptics will require advancements not just in performance, range and recharging infrastructure, but successful marketing too. That’s where sound designers come in. Regulators around the world require EVs to emit some kind of sound for safety reasons, though they’ve left it up to automakers to decide exactly what that sound should be—a big challenge, given that they could theoretically sound like just about anything. “It’s kind of like when [the 1993 film] Jurassic Park was made, and they had to come up with the sound of a dinosaur,” says Jonathan Pierce, a senior manager of experiential R&D at Harman, an automotive-technology company. “None of us has ever heard a dinosaur.” In this case, automakers are less re-creating ancient beasts than figuring out what will replace the ones they know so well, but are on the verge of extinction.

Composer Hans Zimmer’s Los Angeles studio, in June 2019
Composer Hans Zimmer’s Los Angeles studio, in June 2019Courtesy BMW

Sound designers have long helped craft everything from the roar of a car’s engines to the satisfying thump of a closing door. But they have never had the opportunity to shape the soundscape of the future on such a massive scale. For sound engineers, it’s like getting the chance to design not just the Guggenheim but the entire Manhattan skyline. In the notoriously rivalrous world of car design, there’s little agreement about what that soundscape should be.

Broadly, automakers are divided into two camps. The first includes those who’ve drawn inspiration from the sound of gasoline cars—or at least tried to make it sound as if something is at work under the hood, though often with a futuristic edge. Audi falls into this category, as does Ford, where sound engineers tried to make the Mustang Mach-E sound reminiscent of its gasoline-powered namesake. “It has to have a perception of power, a perception of grit,” says Ford sound-design engineer Brian Schabel. Engineers at British automaker Jaguar took a similar route, paring down the essence of a rumbling V-8 engine and high-revving motorbikes for its I-PACE electric crossover. “You want to get right to the good state where people are comfortable with it, they can understand it, and it’s not too weird,” says Jaguar Land Rover sound engineer Iain Suffield. Audi sound engineer Stephan Gsell agrees. “The vehicle is a technical device,” he says. “It’s not a musical instrument.”

On the other side are carmakers that have little interest in replicating the sound of a gasoline engine at all. “We shouldn’t be trying to communicate that there are moving pistons in this thing,” says Danni Venne, lead producer and director of innovation at Made Music Studio, an audio branding agency that designed the engine sound for a recent iteration of the Nissan LEAF. “We’re somewhere else now technologically.” The LEAF sound, Venne says, has “a little bit of a singing quality to it.” GM also took a step in the musical direction, creating EV sounds using sampled guitar, piano and didgeridoo. “We want it to sound organic, yet futuristic,” says GM sound engineer Jigar Kapadia.

Then there’s whatever BMW is doing with its i4 electric-sedan concept. At low speeds, the i4 sounds like an electrified orchestra warming up for a performance. But as it accelerates, the tone becomes deeper and lower. Then comes a high-pitched skittering effect, as if some kind of reality-bending reaction were taking place under the hood. “We conceived a sound to celebrate the car, intended as a highly complex performative art installation,” says BMW sound designer Renzo Vitale. Vitale, who worked alongside famed film-score composer Hans Zimmer on the i4, says it was his counterintuitive idea to make the noise deepen as the car gains speed. “It was a metaphoric way to say, ‘We are looking at the past,'” he says. Given Vitale’s curriculum vitae, it’s not surprising BMW ended up with an unconventional result: he composes electronic and orchestral music in his free time, used to play in progressive metal bands and, while getting his Ph.D. in acoustics at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, created bold live performance art. “I was performing naked, painted black in crazy installations,” Vitale says.

While sound designers like Vitale are excited about the artistic potential in EV sound design, automakers are salivating over the marketing opportunities. One highly produced promotional video posted online by Audi dramatizes its engineers’ search for the perfect sound, featuring the team pensively observing helicopters and wind tunnels. Ford worked with a musician to produce an EDM track sampling the Mach-E’s engine tone. Zimmer features heavily in a recent BMW promo video advertising his work on the i4. “Sound underlines the soul of anything,” the composer says in the spot. “Right now, we are at a really exciting point, shaping the sound of the future.”

Audi sound engineers Stephan Gsell and Rudolf Halbmeir experiment with sound-production techniques
Audi sound engineers Stephan Gsell and Rudolf Halbmeir experiment with sound-production techniquesCourtesy Audi

All this marketing and branding exuberance may die down if car buyers embrace vehicles that are simply quieter rather than noisy in a different way; EV engine tones may eventually be pared down to only the simplest, most essential sounds. Some experts think carmakers will start using retro gasoline-engine sounds in EVs. Others suggest they will include systems that enable drivers to customize their cars’ engine noises, to make them sound like anything from a motorboat to a spaceship. (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is particularly fond of similar gimmicks; Wikipedia’s “List of Easter eggs in Tesla products” includes more than two dozen examples.)

That last scenario alarms Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the U.K. and author of The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World. “The submotive sound of every city is pretty much its cars,” says Cox. “As soon as you change the sound of cars, you’re going to change how the city sounds.” He argues that excessive customization and diversity of vehicle sound could turn urban soundscapes into jarring, chaotic disasters. “We have a sense of what hell would be like, because we lived through it when people first got mobile phones,” he says. “[Everyone] decided to have a ringtone that was individual, and you had this horrible cacophony.”

But plenty of people leave their smartphones in vibrate-only mode, and it’s likely that most EVs will end up being quiet compared with the gas-powered models we’re used to. That could have major benefits for city dwellers in particular, as studies show that constant exposure to traffic noise can increase people’s risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Combined with their lack of emissions, EVs’ relative silence could even make it less awful to live near a major road, fundamentally changing urban design. For that to happen, some sound experts say automakers need to remember that what sounds innovative and interesting in a studio might inspire quite a different feeling for people out in the real world. “We need to have some self-imposed guardrails,” says Pierce. “Not only to do right by our customers but to worry about the society as a whole.”

Driving around New York City in Ford’s Mach-E, I thought about what the roads of the future might sound like. The not-quite-Mustang produced a humming, vaguely electric noise as it accelerated, halfway between a pony car and a Star Wars pod racer. Several EV sound designers spoke about being inspired by sci-fi movies; Zimmer himself composed the score for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Those films may have created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as our imagined futures shape the real sounds of our streets. While sci-fi movies tend to be dystopian, these designers’ work may end up making our future cities at least a little safer and healthier, with less sound and air pollution. But exactly what our streets will sound like when they’re crowded with EVs is still in the hands of those auditory specialists with their strings and synths. “Hans and I keep talking about elegance, the idea of bringing elegance to the streets,” says Vitale. “We want to share a vision of the sound of the future that maybe helps make cities a better place.”

Correction, April 8

The original version of this story misstated Ford’s investment in EVs. The company is investing $22 billion, not $11 billion.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com