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Designing the sound: a challenge for electric vehicles

21.3.2019
Designing the sound: a challenge for electric vehicles

In traditional automobiles, the sound of the engine has always been a dominating element, but in the era of electric mobility it will no longer be like that. Here iswhat is going to change.

Of the many revolutionary changes  brought by the switch to electric mobility, the main one is obviously the lack of a combustion engine – which also translates into a lack of noise. And this translates into a level of design freedom so far unknown, which relates not only to the technical side, but also to the management of sound. “We don’t have any mechanical restrictions, and can give each car its own sound”, explains Valentina Wilhem, UX designer at the Volkswagen Design Centre.

The sound made by a drive system is obviously a key part in defining a car’s overall presentation; an electric motor can also convey power, dynamism and speed.

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Recognisability

Volkswagen‘s goal is to make its electric cars recognisable even with your eyes closed, thanks to a unique and distinctive sound. “Everyone on the road should immediately think, wow, that can only be an electric car. And their second thought should be, wow, that’s a VW”, clarifies Klaus Bischoff, Executive Director of Volkswagen Design.

The role of sound

The answer to the question about the role of sound in the electric mobility is to be found in a city that has more cars than inhabitants. While most of the buildings in Wolfsburg are teeming with activity and noise, the Design Centre is the paradigm of calm, where the sound of birdsong can even be heard.

Inside there is a large room with an impressive lighting system and mirrors along one of its walls, while an 18-meter-long wall serves as a projection screen for presentations and images, with an audio system which recreates the sounds of a natural environment. It is called “Walhalla” and it is here that the new models are presented to the Board of Directors. Also here, a particular team gives “voice” to the cars of tomorrow, working especially on the senses.

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The necessary noise

Cars have to make noise. That is not a matter of taste, but of law. As of July 2019, all newly type-approved electric cars are required to have an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS). Two years after that, no electric or hybrid car will be allowed to leave a factory without an AVAS.

In practice, this will mean that cars have to emit artificial sound up to speeds of 20 km/h. Above that, the the tyres moving against the road generate sufficient noise. Carmakers are permitted to determine the actual sound, but the EU has issued guidelines – which also include  a sample tone– and has to reflect with what the vehicle is doing.

A multi-sensory experience

The compartment of a car creates a multi-sensory experience for its passengers. The primary goal is to to create a calm and pleasant environment, so that drivers remain relaxed while negotiating traffic and are not constantly subject to outside noise. This is because, on the one hand, the lack of a combustion engine reduces the overall noise, while on the other it no longer covers up a series of other noises created by driving, by other components or by the surrounding environment: in this sense, insulation and materials used play an important role.

The UX designers’ research focuses on all the acoustic aspects of spending time in a vehicle: from starting the car up to the turn indicators, through to the notifications from the infotainment system. It is a complex world that requires specific sensibilities. But there is a concept as simple as it is evident that lies behind all the ideas developed: an environment which is neutral from an acoustic perspective helps to enhance the positive sounds – because the final goal is not silence, but rather a sensation of well-being.

SourceVolkswagen AG

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