What should an electric car sound like? That’s the question that Japanese car maker GLM asked when considering its electric ZZ Roadster. And instead of coming up with something itself, it passed the task to someone who knows about electric sounds: Roland, the synth and musical instrument maker. Together, they will “co-develop a neo-futuristic driving sound generation system.”
This might be the first time that Herbie Hancock and Jimmy Page have been mentioned in an automotive press release, and the announcement just keeps getting better. Roland’s synth tech will provide “dynamic and dramatic sounds that seamlessly change depending on real-time driving situations like acceleration, deceleration, and motor load variances on sloping roads.”
Right now I’m imagining a kid playing with a toy car and making the sound effects as they go. And it seems like that might not be far from the actual design, because the ZZ will have “neo-futuristic sounds that will give sports car enthusiasts the experience of driving a space ship on the road.”
Kid-pleasing awesomeness aside, what sound should an electric car make? Should it even make a sound at all? The answer to the second question seems to be “yes,” based on safety issues. If you can’t hear a car coming, you may step out in front of it. In the oldest parts of European cities, cars putter down the same narrow streets as pedestrians, and I’ve often been surprised when I’ve turned to see a hybrid taxi, running silent, creeping along behind me. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even has its own minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles.
But the danger of silent cars could be looked at another way. We’ve gotten so used to avoiding these vehicles as they hurtle through the middle of crowded spaces that their noise pollution has become essential to our safety. We don’t even question whether the cars should even be there, sharing our smallest city streets.
As speeds increase above 10 kilometers per hour, tire noise becomes loud enough to hear, so on faster roads we’ll hear cars anyway, and we’ll also be expecting them. In the city, though maybe the answer is not to keep contaminating the place with noise, but to remove cars altogether.
At least current car sounds are somewhat organic, the human-made equivalent of a babbling brook. The alternative could be a cacophony of conflicting noise. Domino’s Pizza already turned its electric scooters into advertising machines with added noises consisting of “a human being making engine noises and occasionally yelling ‘Domino’s!’ and ‘Pizza!’”
With its new electric motorbike, Harley Davidson, whose brand rests largely on its motorcycles’ rumble, recently opted for the sound of a fighter plane shooting past. This might be cool when the bike’s alone on the highway, but less so when mixed in with competing car FX.
Perhaps what’s needed is something soothing, like the musical engines that Marta Santambrogio tested in Delhi, India. “You are supposed to embrace and participate in a musical extravaganza, informed by the specific driving path you take, and those whom you cross along the journey.”
That sounds more like it.