The Future Of Automotive Sound

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Written by CORD Worldwide.

Sound has always played a significant (if somewhat clandestine) role in shaping the relationship between us and the cars we drive. In an increasingly competitive landscape manufacturers are exploring ever more innovative ways in which they can use sound to influence how we perceive a car brand and the characteristics that make it unique.

The automotive industry is currently undergoing the biggest set of changes in its history with technology driven trends revolutionizing a market that’s set to diversify and grow in value to £6.7 trillion by 2030.

These dramatic transformations have forced manufacturers, engineers, designers and marketeers to work together more closely than ever before in order to re-imagine the end to end consumer experience and how human beings interact with the vehicles they drive. And this includes what they hear as much what they see and touch.

From driverless cars to the mass personalisation that enables consumers to digitally customize every specification, the relationship between driver and vehicle is being redefined for the future.

Psychologists have a name for it: Embodied Cognition. The theory that our bodily sensations, without conscious awareness, help determine the decisions we make and drive consumer behavior.

The shape of the headlights, the patina & texture of the leather seats, the smell of the cabin, the reassuringly heavy sound of a closing door, or the guttural roar of a V8 engine - these seemingly incidental sensorial cues are key to unlocking our visceral and subconscious responses. And as a result they underpin our emotional relationship with a particular car brand.

Of course car manufacturers have known that sound is a key factor in this equation for decades, and have found ways to optimize the overall aural experience of a vehicle. The acoustic qualities of a car’s functions (both interior and exterior) are often subtle and rely on visceral and unconscious responses – the sonic characteristics that prompt an emotional response from the driver.

Automobiles and their Audio Attributes

Take Rolls Royce for instance, whose cars have always been famed for their quietness – a by-product of engineering craft and excellence catering to a discerning customer base.

David Ogilvy’s famous Rolls Royce press ad from 1959 elegantly expresses this:

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The process used in vehicle manufacture to determine the acoustic attributes of vehicles is known as Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) engineering.

With the Rolls Royce example, NVH has been applied to analyse and suppress interior sound sources and as a result provides the passenger with a relaxing and relatively noiseless journey.

Conversely sports car manufactures often use NVH engineering to analyse and enhance the ‘sportier’ acoustic characteristics of their vehicles, such as the exhaust note or engine noise. The focus is on quality of sound over volume and manufacturers are increasingly working with sound designers and audio engineering experts to better understand how to provide the optimal sonic experience for consumers both inside and outside the car.

A turbocharged growl from a hybrid hatchback

Enhanced engine sounds have become a hot topic within the industry and increasingly manufacturers face a paradox in consumer demand. Drivers want all the force and fuel savings of a newer, better engine — but the classic sound of an old gas-guzzler.

“For a car guy, it’s literally music to hear that thing rumble,”

Mike Rhynard, Member of the Denver Mustang Club. 

Perhaps more than any other car brand, the rasping growl of a vintage V-8 engine is a sound that has become synonymous with the Ford Mustang. An ownable brand attribute that is cherished and celebrated by Mustang owners and which Ford themselves describe as ‘the mating call of Mustang,”

For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers. Afterwards, they surveyed members of Mustang fan clubs on which processed “sound concepts” they most enjoyed.

olkswagen on the other hand uses what’s called a “Soundaktor,” a special speaker that looks like a hockey puck and plays sound files in the GTI and Beetle Turbo models.

Porsche’s new 911 model uses a Sound Symposer to bring to life the car’s acoustic signature. This system uses a piece of kit which incorporates a harmonious sound pattern, damping out unpleasant noise. The goal was not only to deliver the aural “emotions” expected of a 911 but also to provide the driver with feedback about the car’s mechanical status.

Meanwhile Lexus has worked with sound technicians at Yamaha to amplify the noise of its LFA Supercar and direct the signal towards the driver seat, whilst the BMW M5 plays a recording of the engine sound through speakers which changes according to engine load and power.

The Sound of Hybrid/Electric Silence

To date, the development of these sonic characteristics has mainly been focused around internal combustion engines. However the introduction of hybrid and electric cars has caused manufacturers to drastically rethink how these types of vehicles should sound.

Apart from the sound of tyres and the hum of an electric motor these vehicles don’t make much noise. Whilst raising concerns about safety and how pedestrians would be alerted to an oncoming vehicle, it has also prompted much speculation from manufacturers about what a car should sound like and in turn how that audio signature can be used to both differentiate the brand and also to remain congruent with the cacophonous soundscape of a city.

Some manufacturers believe all cars should sound the same, with standardized noises and sound levels whereas Nissan have suggested that its hybrid automobile should sound like tweeting birds.

Porsche have added loudspeakers to its electric car prototype to give it the same throaty growl as its gasoline-powered cars whilst the Audi R8 E-Tron generates sound in real time and the system calculates and transmits all the data collected while driving so the result is played through a loudspeaker attached to the underpinnings of the electric vehicle. According to Audi, no two Audi R8 e-trons will sound the same, with each e-tron model exhibiting a unique sound of its own. As its name suggests the effect is like hearing a vehicle featured in the movie Tron:

In different countries legislation is currently being drafted in order to standardise sound levels in electric vehicles and establish a set of criteria around alerting, orientation and unobtrusiveness.

However at a time such as this when the industry is undergoing seismic changes, a huge opportunity presents itself for manufacturers to harness innovation and creativity in order to deliver the driver of the future an orchestrated and unique sonic experience.