Digital sounds rev up electric cars

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IOL mot pic jun15 Corvette Exhaust Pipes

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For many motoring enthusiasts the sound of their engine is part and parcel of the whole emotion of driving, all the more if the car in question is a bad-ass V8 such as this Corvette.

When legendary folk singer Bob Dylan switched from an acoustic to an electric guitar back in the mid ‘60s, many fans were outraged by this perceived “selling out” to a fake, technologically-tweaked sound.

Of course we now look back and laugh at those pot-smoking purists, as modern audiences have no issue with electronic music (my Lady Gaga-loving teenage kids are too young to remember the brief “unplugged” comeback of the early 1990s with Eric Clapton, Nirvana et al strumming their acoustics on MTV).

In a Dylan-esque way we’re coming to another unplugged-versus-techno crossroads in the sounds that cars make.

With the age of electric cars dawning comes the disconcerting prospect of losing the emotive noises made by internal-combustion engines.

A thunderous roar is part and parcel of a true supercar

A sporty growl is inextricable from the driving experience of a hot hatch, while the howl made by a high-revving V8 or straight-six can inspire grown men into emotional paroxysms that rival teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

To those who consider a car to be more than a point A to B conveyance, ear candy adds charisma to the whole production. What is a lion without its roar, after all?

Sound is important. Ask any schoolboy who stuck a piece of cardboard to rub against his wheel spokes to give his bicycle an engine-like sound. So the prospect of driving a near-silent electric car is too much for motoring purists to bear. It’s like kissing your sister, or drinking alcohol-free beer.

But auto companies are ahead of the game.

They’re creating artificial engine sounds for future electric cars. This is partly for safety reasons, and these vehicles employ weather-friendly external speakers to generate engine sounds that prevent pedestrians from stepping into the path of silent electric cars they didn’t hear.

But there are also noise-generation systems being developed to appease the petrolheads. These synthetic engine sounds change in harmony (pun intended) with the throttle, providing authentic audible “feedback” to drivers. Systems are being developed that will enable drivers to select from various soundtracks, enabling their electric car to sound, for instance, like a V12 Ferrari or a rotary-engined Mazda, or anything in between.

Not the same thing, I hear you howl in purist outrage.

But, in suggesting that digital decibels are not authentic enough, are we not the same as those people who booed Dylan off the stage when he plugged in his guitar? Sound is sound, it could be argued, and is it really important whether the raunchy riff in a rock song is produced by a Fender Stratocaster or a computer programme? Or a V8 howl produced by real pistons and a real exhaust, compared to a digital facsimile thereof?

My own purist streak argues firmly in favour of the real deal, although I do admit to being intrigued by the idea of switching soundtracks to suit my mood. Hmm, perhaps a Nascar growl for the trip to work and a Formula One wail for the drive home ...

In case you didn’t know...

The synthetic sound revolution has already begun - in a hybrid sort of way.

When BMW switched its M5 performance sedan from a V10 to a twin-turbo V8, it lost some of the exhaust note for which the car had become known, so it devised a system to pipe engine sounds into the cabin for the aural enjoyment of those inside. Toyota’s done a similar thing with its new 86 four-cylinder sportscar, and so too the Porsche 911 and the McLaren MP4-12C.

So yes, I prefer a real guitar sound to a computer-generated one, but we (or actually our grandchildren) must face the reality of a future world devoid of growling V8s when the earth eventually runs out of oil and moves over en masse to electric cars. I’ll take a synthesised engine howl over no howl any day, as long as there’s something to titillate the eardrums. The sounds of silence, to quote another sixties folk band, seem too dull to contemplate. - Star Motoring

Follow Denis Droppa on twitter @DenisDroppa

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