From 1 July 2019, all new electric vehicles in the EU will need to be fitted with a sound-emitting safety device. While the dream of noiseless motoring may now be a thing of the past, the legislation opens possibilities for car personalisation and branding — changing the way we aspire to drive.

The new EU law requires all new electric vehicles to be fitted with an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS) that emits sound at 56dB at speeds below 20km/h. While the sound must be similar to conventional cars, the rules still leave plenty of room for interpretation. Similar rules are due to be introduced in the US in September 2020.

Why all the fuss? Although cutting noise pollution has always been part of the attraction when it comes to EVs, cars without sound have two major drawbacks.

First, they are less safe. Cars travelling at low speeds make less sound on the tarmac and through the air. The blind are particularly vulnerable. The UK-based Guide Dogs charity argues that — visually impaired or not — 80% of how we sense danger is through hearing.

Second, sound adds pleasure to the experience of driving. The purr of a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet are part of what lifted early motoring beyond function to aspiration. Sound puts us in touch with the road, signals how fast we are going and lets us know how the car is doing. In an increasingly intangible world of cashless transactions and streamable media, some will be concerned the ending of natural car sound is a backwards step.

Finding the voice of the electric vehicle

Intelligent sound design could hold the answer for car manufacturers looking for ways to meet safety requirements, while still offering drivers a sense of automotive personality.

Renzo Vitale, a sound designer at BMW, summarized the challenge in a TEDx talk this year: “When we approach a car, we will want to feel an emotion that, as well as following the legal requirements, speaks about the character and identity of the car.” Finding an appropriate sound for a car, he says, is not so much about providing a soundtrack, as giving the car a voice.

A number of different approaches are currently being tested. Oddly enough, serial disruptor Tesla is following a more traditional path with a reportedly near perfect sound replica of a V8 engine. Other manufacturers are seeing if the driver’s desired emotions can be translated into more futuristic sounds. BMW and Nissan and are stretching convention with sounds that re-imagine the dynamism and sense of adventure driving entails.

While futuristic sounds are a great talking point and publicity tool, it remains to be seen where customer preferences will eventually lie. What is certain is that consumers will initially jump at the chance to personalise their drive. The experience of mobile phone ringtones suggests, however, that after an initial giddy period, sounds will become more sober. Drivers in the end will look for sounds that make driving feel more like driving. The better that sound designers can capture and enhance this feeling, the more popular and enduring their sounds will become.

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