Will sound make electric vehicles safer?

Within a few decades, electric vehicles will dominate the roadways, and these changes promise a lot: clearer air, greater fuel efficiency, and less dependency on foreign oil. While there’s a prospect of a better tomorrow, these electric vehicles have a silent killer. Since these vehicles emit no noise, our streets and walkways may become too quiet, and that’s a problem.

In a case study entitled “A Glance at the Future of External Vehicular Sound,” ustwo, a digital product studio, explores the possibility of solving this problem seen with virtually all electric vehicles. When cars and trucks become silent, pedestrians and other vehicles loose the ability to give off auditory clues to make people aware of what’s around them. Without the sound of engine or the squeal of breaks, one might not notice a large semi-truck rolling down the street.

The team at ustwo set out to create a system for elective vehicles that would replicate and replace this need for pedestrians or other motorist to be aware of other vehicles. “The project, which is more of an experiment than a practical application of the technology,” says The Wired, “presents a smart hypothesis for how automakers might make their silent fleet of vehicles safer for drivers and pedestrians alike.

 Image: ustwo

Image: ustwo


If you ask any Harley or Corvette owner why they bought those vehicles, chances are they bought them because of the way they sound. Simply, the a brand moniker of these sounds lies in the mechanics of the engine.

While the brand expression of these vehicles may be important, Professor Myounghoon Jeon, who worked with ustwo, believes that safety and allowing people to know what the car is doing takes precedence over everything else. “When we design [automotive] sound, we need to balance between traditional safety and usability vs aesthetics and brand language,” says Jeon. “For this case specifically, safety may have priority over the other aspects, because [vehicle vs human] is a really critical point.”

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will start requiring all EVs to emit a sound when these vehicles are traveling less than 19mph. Traveling any faster, according to automakers, would cause the vehicle to emit a sound from either the wind reflection or the tires.

Meaning, anyone creating an electric vehicle will need to create a sound to go with it. And not all sounds are the same, and not any sound would do. The sound of a car is a unique and huge brand marker of any vehicle. Just think of riding a Harley or a Corvette without the thunder of the engine. A large part of the monikers of the branding of automotive come from these brand markers.


In order to help bring these new ideas to life, Ustwo enlisted the help of Man Made Music, an audio branding agency, to help design sounds that fit within their solutions. The teams ended up creating solution that fits within a risk scale. Since a lot of these vehicles are fitted with object tracking sensors, the designers created sounds that are emitted based on the risk on a scale of Low Risk, Medium Risk, High Risk, and Extreme Risk. Once those variables are accounted for, the sounds are emitted to the corresponding sound.

While they were creating the sounds, the team went through a series of sprints to iterate on a few ideas. “There were many elements that we wanted to discover, but the most important of all was the question, ‘Can pedestrians feel safer if vehicles communicated the levels of risk through sound?’,” says Ustwo.

The team created four different sound concepts that included: binary, staircase, incline, and traffic lights. “While working with Man Made Music, Also, the teams considered the behavioral concept that perception is based on the detection of change. In humans, the brain filters out any unchanging stimuli, so to signify increasing risk, a change in sound must be heard. They recommended we test a variety of sonic changes (pitch, tempo, volume, contrasting sound) and study which most effectively communicates change in risk to a listener.”

Have you heard of Skeuomorphism?

Don Norman, in his 2013 edition of “The Design of Everyday Things,” writes about this very subject. He explains, “Adding sound to a vehicle to warn pedestrians is not a new idea. For many years, commercial trucks and construction equipment have had to make beeping sounds when backing up. Horns are required by law, presumably so that drivers can use them to alert pedestrians and other drivers when the need arises.”

Norman, a many others like him, believe all the sounds emitted from EV need to mimic the sounds cars and trucks currently produce, making it easier for the public to get used to the surroundings. And since the late 2000s, automakers have been trying to recreate an “electric motor” type of sound, falling in the line of Skeuomorphic. “In user experience design,” says Jessica Moon, Creative Director at digital-telepathy, “digital skeuomorphism holds great potential for bringing rich emotional experiences to digital devices, which are otherwise impersonal.”


But what does a noise internal combustion engine say about the car and the driver in this new era? “We come to the ever-increasing reality that combustion engines are slowly becoming dated technology,” says ustwo. “Is replicating the sounds of the past the right way to go, or should we be innovating?” And the agencies’ VR Engineer says it this way: “Recreating and adding a combustion engine sound to electric vehicles is like adding a horse’s neigh to the first cars ever made!”

Image Credit: ustwo