How Electric Cars Get Their Sounds — and What It Means For Tomorrow’s Cities
A fascinating combination of engineering, art, and marketing that will change how the world sounds
Recently, I was standing next to an electric car as it reversed out of a parking space. As it backed up, the car made a space-age whooshing sound, like a science fiction spacecraft gliding along the surface of an alien planet. As soon as the car stopped reversing, though, the sound changed completely. Intrigued, I started looking into why electric vehicles sound the way they do. It turns out that electric cars’ sounds aren’t created by the cars themselves — they’re put there by people. The process of designing these tiny, mission-critical musical performances is a fascinating combination of engineering, art, and marketing that will soon fundamentally alter the way our world sounds.
To learn about EVs’ sounds, I went straight to the source. Danielle Venne of Made Music Studios is a master of sonic branding, the process of designing the sounds that tech products, apps, and other modern innovations make. Venne was instrumental in designing the sound of the Nissan Leaf, one of the world’s best-selling electric vehicles. Venne also works on other high-tech sound projects, including designing the sounds for the future Virgin Hyperloop (on which more below).
In an interview, Venne told me that below about 30 kilometers per hour, electric vehicles are effectively silent. That’s a huge problem. With conventional cars, Venne said, “There’s always internal combustion sounds. Those sounds provide information about the car — how big it is, how fast it’s going, what direction it’s moving, and more.” People have grown accustomed to listening for cars when crossing a road or walking through a busy parking lot, and to distinguishing such things as the roar of a garbage truck from the light hum of a small hatchback. Even if you can’t see a car approaching, its sound can alert you to the car’s presence, helping you to avoid walking in front of it.
With electric cars, though, Venne told me that “There are no pistons firing, and nothing that reflexively tells you about the car.” An EV could be bearing down on you, and you’d have no idea. That’s an issue for everyone, but…