Science

Troubled symphony of engines

Column by Francis Van de Wustin, journalist

Let’s hope that in a few years our cities will be more breathable. All heat engines will disappear, the vast majority of vehicles will be equipped with electric motors, hydrogen or who knows, driven by other energy. CO2 emissions will be significantly reduced. As well as the sound level of cars, motorcycles, trucks, minibuses, buses and other vehicles. Asphalt roads have already limited traffic noise. Fortunately, in some historical areas, the good old paving stones have been preserved.

This undoubted progress in terms of sound quality in cities, however, comes with a real danger for weak users (pedestrians and cyclists), who can be caught off guard even on protected roads by cars moving in complete silence.

The pleasure of sounds

Two questions arise, inspired by the silence of electric vehicles. The first relates to the “hearing” of drivers of powerful cars. The second, of course, concerns the security of weak users. Sobriety advocates may not realize that the sound of a powerful engine can be a source of auditory satisfaction that increases driving pleasure tenfold. Rather, they see it as unbearable noise pollution. But that’s the way it is: for lovers of beautiful cars, noise is part of the charm.

Today’s big-displacement enthusiasts not only appreciate their race car’s line, comfort, soft leather, performance, they (and they perhaps…?) are also very sensitive to the very specific noise of an eight-cylinder engine. cylinders accelerate. What to do later, when these machines will be equipped with an electric motor, just as powerful, but … silent? The acceleration of the electric motor will still be as phenomenal as before, but will it be as “joyful” if not embellished with the noise that characterizes the current V 8?

Manufacturers are working on how to add sound to electric vehicles. For example, the BMW group, through lconicSounds Electric, asked Hans Zimmer and Renzo Vitale to add sound to some of their electric models. Hans Zimmer? He notably signed the soundtracks for the films Gladiator, The Lion King, Thelma & Louise, Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, Interstellar. Thus, depending on the selected driving mode, the sound produced will be different: “an exciting and pleasant atmosphere” in “Comfort” mode, “a powerful sound spectrum” in “Sport” mode and complete silence in “Eco Pro” mode.

To inspire manufacturers, the American site The Verge selected composers who could offer cars to broadcast “pleasant” sounds. He suggests that John Williams (Star Wars) composes inspirational sounds, that Danny Elfman (Men in Black) represents “a roar accompanied by a brass part”, and Trent Reznor (The Social Network) creates “a rising atmosphere of terror” . A less enthusiastic but more pragmatic Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, has announced that his cars will soon be able to play elevator music…

Silence or caution?

It’s for fun. But the main question, of course, concerns the safety of weak users, especially since they, having riveted headphones to their ears, sometimes listen to music on the move. This is another problem for the future car sound system. To address this issue, the European Union has made noise mandatory for some vehicles, in particular to protect visually impaired pedestrians. So, from July 1, 2019, new models of electric vehicles must make audible noise up to 20 km / h. In addition, electric vehicles produce sound through aerodynamic and road noise. But will this be enough and will it be identified with danger? At the moment, in addition to the obligation to make noise at low speed, there are no restrictions on the nature of the noise emitted by electric vehicles. Everyone does what they want. In the future, depending on makes and models, the sound of electric vehicles may become an accessory, something like phone ringtones. With the risk that the symphony of engines will turn into a real urban cacophony, all sounds are allowed, pleasant or not. Good discussion, therefore: silence does not necessarily mean caution.

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