Have we been overthinking EV sounds?

For years, automakers have been fussing over the sounds emitted by their electric vehicles, trying to tune them in a way that both presents as futuristic while also not alienating to people who are used to the rev of a four-cylinder engine.

They seem to have settled on a series of sounds that could best be described as somewhere in between a whir and a hum. Others would say it sounds like a flying saucer — and not always in a good way. But according to a new survey, most people may prefer something else entirely.

Others would say it sounds like a flying saucer — and not always in a good way

The online survey of 400 adults in the US found the top-rated sound was a “non-tonal” sound more closely resembling a gas-powered car than any of the inorganic sounds emitted by today’s electric vehicles. The survey — a joint effort by “sonic branding agency” Listen and behavioral science and neuromarketing research agency CloudArmy — asked participants to rank a series of sounds based on several criteria, including likability, noticeability, familiarity, and pleasantness. There were five tonal sounds and five non-tonal ones.

The two top-ranking sounds were both non-tonal and could best be described as white noise with slightly different pitches. The survey’s respondents preferred the non-tonal sounds over the tonal ones, which they perceived as being “alarming,” “ugly,” and “unappealing.” In contrast, people liked the non-tonal sounds because they sound more like white noise or “nature-derived.” Indeed, some respondents said they wanted sounds that most closely resembled a conventional car noise.

That could come as a shock to automakers, which so far have largely been over-indexing themselves on EV sounds. Several companies have announced high-profile projects to design unique sounds for their battery-electric models. BMW hired famed film composer Hans Zimmer to formulate soundscapes for its i4 electric sedans, while Mercedes-Benz is teaming up with to create an “interactive musical experience” for its cars. The Fiat 500e emits literal classical music at low speeds.

Other automakers are leaning the opposite way, designing fake exhaust sounds to overcompensate for the absence of internal combustion. Dodge even went so far as to brand its own fake engine noise as the “Fratzonic Chambered Exhaust System.” While the survey seems to indicate that people are open to conventional car sounds for their EVs, it’s unclear whether these particular artificial acoustics will go over well or not.

Government regulations require EVs to emit low-speed sounds to alert pedestrians and other road users to an approaching vehicle. These sounds need to contain frequencies between 1,000 and 4,000 Hz, which is an audible range often associated with the higher, brighter end of the human voice. These tonal sounds do capture people’s attention, but often with a negative side effect.

A non-tonal, more white noise-inspired approach could be a better approach. Famous composers and hip-hop impresarios need not apply.


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