A couple of years ago now, I was booked for some work with a batch of electric Smart cars. Very much the early generation of car at the time, their Nickel Hydride battery packs didn’t like the cold and the range was just 60 miles or so. They were prototypes, designed as ‘proof of concept’. The Tesla roadster was newly launched and people were viewing electric cars in the same negative way that the Celica GT Four was the first car in the UK to run on 100% unleaded with a catalytic converter. A rare fuel pump back in 1986 when four and five star were the thing. “That will never catch on….”
These early cars were actually quite good around the city streets, the purpose of this exercise being to demonstrate to town planners that the technology has a future. The cars where quite sprightly, with good urban performance and surprisingly fun to drive. However, I sat in disbelief, observing sucked teeth noises, much stroking of grey beards and shaking of heads as these people drove them. “This is a huge, huge problem” they declared. “They’re too quiet.” For years, these academically learned people have been decrying inner city pollution and engine noise. Here is the perfect solution, but they only see another problem.
Sorry, but it’s not a problem. Really it isn’t. A standard Lexus LS400 from 1990 running ten feet behind you is inaudible. If you’re walking along a cycle path, you’re aware that there may be cyclists, who are similarly inaudible. Therefore you keep a lookout. “But what about the blind?”, the elbow patch wearers exclaimed. Sorry, you are doing blind people a disservice. They’ve managed to avoid the cyclists and the Lexus LS400’s until now. Perhaps you need to simply lift your head up from the health and safety charts and the rule book and look behind you.
Now here we are in 2014 and it’s clear that legislation is being passed to ensure that electric cars will emit some kind of noise. Even taking into account that this article is from the Daily Mail website, it’s obvious legislation is incoming
So what noise should an electric car make?
With today’s technology, it’s possible to make a car sound like anything you’d like it to. Audio specialist Harmon teamed up with Lotus recently to create HALOSonic, a range of audio technologies focusing on three main areas, Electronic Sound Synthesis, Active Road Noise Cancellation and Engine Order Cancellation
It became apparent in developing the technology that it was possible to make any car sound just as we might want it to. With cylinder deactivation technology allowing manufactures to drop banks of cylinders to aid emissions, it’s possible to reinstate the original V8 noise, even though you may be driving a V4 at times.
Using the car’s speakers inside the cabin, a diesel engine sound is replaced with an American pushrod V8 or an exotic European V12. HARMAN can even add a supercharger ‘whine’ if the car maker needs it. “We can make the car sound whatever the customer wants it to be,” says Harmon’s Kay Robinson. “If it has to run just on a limited number of cylinders, inside the driver will still perceive the creamy sound of a V6 or perhaps when they are running in sports mode they want it to sound more like a racing car. We can even introduce shift points for automatic transmission in Hybrid/EVs so it sounds like they’re changing up and down the gears too.”
Personally, I wouldn’t want an electric car to sound like a Lamborghini. That would be right up there with one of those Cobra kit cars fitted with a 1600cc Pinto engine. However, I can see benefits. For me, the unnerving thing about hybrids and electric cars is the stepless transmission. I’ve never been a CVT fan and though I loved the Lexus RX450h, the gearbox was the thing I didn’t like. And electric motors rev far higher than even a BDA, the urge to hear an upshift is strong. Humour me.
I’d like more seat time in the latest electrically powered cars. I see how I could quite easily become an electric car evangelist, keeping the GT3’s Mezger flat six howl for special occasions. Pass me a used Tesla Roadster someone. Ask that software to make me some shift up points and I’ll have my electric car sounding like Luke Skywalker’s X34 Landspeeder please. Perhaps with a little supercharger whine thrown in for good measure and some popping on the overrun….