Street Sounds

Under new legislation, electric cars may be required to emit a noise to warn pedestrians. But what sound should that be? A group of designers is exploring the possibilities

What would you like your city to sound like? This is the question posed by Sonic Movement, a project run by a group of designers, artists and musicians who are proposing new ways of thinking about vehicle sounds in the age of the electric car.

Our cities are currently dominated by the sound of automotive vehicles. As electric cars begin to make a significant dent on the market, however, there is an opportunity to design the sounds they make to create a more harmonious aural environment in cities, one that is not filled with the sound of roaring engines or the hum of mechanics. Electric cars make no specific sound. Initially this silence was part of their appeal – as well as being better for the environment in terms of engine emissions, their quietness meant that cars would no longer pollute with their noise either. Yet, it has quickly become apparent that silence, in terms of cars, is dangerous. We are used to subconsciously listening out for vehicles – if they make no sound, they become significantly more hazardous to pedestrians and other road users. As a result, legislation is emerging that will require electric cars to emit a warning sound. And in this comes an opportunity.

I first heard about Sonic Movement when its founders, James Brooks and Fernando Ocaña, appeared on Jarvis Cocker’s radio show on Six Music. In the mellow setting of Cocker’s Sunday afternoon show, their ideas sounded philosophical, even poetic. Speaking to them by phone to Sweden, where they are based (Sonic Movement operates as part of the Research Innovation Lab at automotive and telecoms company Semcon, HQ in Gothenburg), this impression is reinforced. Rather than seeing electric car sounds as a design problem to be solved, they view the project in larger terms. “We’re looking at rethinking the sound of our cities, which is massive,” says Brooks.

Brooks and Ocaña began working in this area almost by accident. Both are visual designers and graduates from the Royal College of Art’s vehicle design programme. Neither has a background in sound. But in testing some hybrid vehicles in London for a magazine, Brooks experienced the problem first hand. “[The cars] made a sound, which you could switch on or off. Either it gave the alarm sound, which was embarrassing as hell to switch on, or you just had to use the horn,” he says. “It was a real problem. I noticed people just wandering out in front of me.”

The duo joined forces with Holly Herndon, an artist and musician who already had an interest in creating music for cars, and Mat Dryhurst, an artist and technologist, and began thinking about the kind of sounds that could work in a city environment, would meet the practical requirements demanded by the new legislation, but would also introduce a new way of thinking about a city’s soundscape. Their work really came together when Ocaña and Brooks joined Semcon. It is from there that they have been able to fully expand their ideas, and directly propose them to automotive companies.

Cacophony or harmony?

When technology changes, there is a tendency to use sound to create a continuation between old and new design – an example of this is the shutter sound featured on smart phones when a photo is taken; there is no shutter going off, but the sound provides a reassurance to users. Similarly, there is the possibility that car designers, when asked to create sounds for an electric vehicle, will simply mimic the engine noises we already know.

“If they start applying V8 engine [sounds] to them, there’s going to be no difference between an electric car and a petrol-driven car other than emissions,” says Brooks. “That to me is really scary and that’s where there’s some urgency.”

“Someone who really understands sound design would do something completely different, not just for the purpose of art and beauty, but to communicate,” continues Ocaña.

Sonic Movement proposes a system that is subtle and adaptive. The group suggests that manufacturers begin by using sounds similar to that of a combustion engine so that people initially understand what they are hearing – “you have to be careful not to alienate people and create something confusing,” says Brooks – but then allow that to phase into a more harmonious set of sounds over time. The team propose that a complex sound system, composed of several aspects, should be considered.

“We broke the car into two elements,” Brooks explains. “You have the core sound which is generated by normal acoustic speakers, which is essentially the sound of the vehicle breathing, if you will, or its heartbeat. It’s a subtle communicative tool that tells you that the vehicle is switched on and gives indication of its movement. [For] the warning sound, we decided that the best route for that was to use directional speakers, ‘sound shower ‘speakers. By applying directional speakers … you can alert specific people, specific pedestrians, thus not intruding on the overall environment.

“What’s being suggested at the moment,” he continues, “and what legislation in the US is certainly heading towards, is actually a frequency bandwidth that’s almost akin to an ambulance. Maybe not that volume, but that sort of frequency, and it’s going to be a general speaker so everyone will hear it. So you put 40 cars on a central London road, all with these sounds stacking on top of each other and you’ll end up with a cacophony of awful noise, when actually there’s technology there and there’s the thinking there to be able to do something much more humanistic, much more adaptive. With these ideas in hand, we’re now in the process of taking this conversation to legislators.”

The potential to design the sound of a car also opens up clear opportunities for brands. While the internal sounds of a car – the noise of the indicators, for example – are already carefully thought out, there is the opportunity here to take the general car sound to a whole new level. “If we understand that this is not just a way for someone to avoid getting hit, but to create a positive interaction between these cars and the city, it becomes a whole new channel for your brand to communicate,” says Ocaña.

“If you don’t have to be looking at a vehicle to understand the quality and be drawn to it, it’s got massive brand implications,” continues Brooks. “There’s a concept we’re developing which is based around cars synthesizing together … so you have BMWs, for example, and they pull up at a set of traffic lights and there are two or three BMWs amongst many other cars, and those BMWs synthesize together to create a really beautiful harmonic sound – what a massive brand statement.”

Cars being seen as something positive is at the root of Sonic Movement’s work. As well as providing a more pleasant aural environment for city dwellers, they are keen to reverse the prevailing attitude that cars are a negative force in society. “As vehicle designers within the automotive world, we are aware how demonised the car is and are always trying to figure out ways of bringing this essential tool back into a relevant cultural position,” says Brooks.

While cars creating sweet music together at traffic lights might seem futuristic, and perhaps a touch fanciful, the point is that we are in the unique position of deciding what our cars can sound like. No longer are we governed by the vehicles’ mechanics – instead, manufacturers are in a position of choice. The results could be beautiful or they could be awful, it’s in our hands.

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