Designing the Sound of Safety

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the AES Automotive Conference in San Francisco with my colleague, and Man Made’s Creative Director, VR and Technology, Joel Douek. We were there to talk about the challenges we faced on a recent project: creating an iconic sound for an electric vehicle that also satisfied a forthcoming global regulation.

The electric vehicle (EV) regulation is being implemented in multiple countries to warn passengers about approaching electric cars. Since they have no internal combustion engine, they tend to be almost silent. Ironically, many in the automotive field have worked toward this silent operation; their utopia is a world without sonic pollution from millions of combustible engines. The reality however, is that a silent vehicle would have real negative implications for people with accessibility issues, such as vision imparement. Hence the regulation was born, and EVs will require sound when idle, in drive and reverse.

Our presentation was given in a workshop format, so industry professionals had the opportunity to ask questions and comment. It was fascinating to learn how much of a challenge this regulation was to everyone in the industry!

In automotive development, car design and manufacture is usually locked years before the consumer sees the car. In this case, the auto manufacturers had to retrofit existing designs with playback systems (speakers, amplifiers) to cover this regulation. One immediate factor is cost. Adding just a few dollars for a tiny, weatherproof speaker would result in millions of dollars spent across the fleet of vehicles.

Another challenge was the regulation spec itself. Our task was to create a regulation sound, that is distinct, iconic and branded. This would allow consumers and pedestrians to identify the vehicle’s make and model. We use musicality as the basis of creation, which provides a cohesive set of elements to work with, plus adds an identity and sense of emotion to the sound. Based on the sound of an internal combustion engine, the regulation lent itself towards non-tonal sound (white noise).

We heard from several manufacturers who had the same issue. Since the regulation requires that the sound increase in pitch, speed, and volume, it meant that any sound would get increasingly shrill as the car accelerated. That might be good for alerting pedestrians, but it’s not particularly pleasant. Taking this a step further, with thousands of EVs on the roads, all emitting a shrill sound, you could imagine the potential for sonic trash!

We feel we succeeded in creating an iconic, branded sound for this particular car maker that also meets the regulation. What remains to be seen (and heard) is what happens when every EV (and even some hybrids) emits its own custom sound.

After hearing so many of our frustrations shared back to us over the course of our AES workshop, our hope is that the regulation will eventually be re-evaluated. Once all of these cars hit the road, other future technologies may help keep us all from a cacophony of vehicle sounds: cars will become more intelligent and may start having a unified communication protocol. Whereas cars right now (for lack of a better term) are “dumb,” blindly sending out sound to alert us. Future communications could allow cars to be more intelligent when they need to emit sound, perhaps using proximity detection, and only using a very directional sound on the side where a warning is needed.

We’ll see what the future holds, perhaps we’ll end up back in that silent utopia, with cars warning us only when needed.