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Home / Features / EV sounds need to alert us, not entertain us

EV sounds need to alert us, not entertain us

Filmic scores being piped from electric vehicles won’t be a win for brands – EV sounds that keep us safe and sane are what we need

EV emitting music

VRRRMMMM! The meaty sound of a traditional car engine. VMMMM! The buzzing noise of an EV as it starts off on its journey, like the mutant offspring of a hatchback and a mildly irritating wasp. Still, better than EVs being silent and flattening you in a stealth attack when you’re not paying attention. Hence various countries enforcing an ‘acoustic vehicle alerting system’ when EVs are doddering along. But VMMMM! is not… very inspiring.

It strikes me, then, that there could be more imagination in this space. EVs could potentially sound like anything – although, you know, they do need to sound like something. Silence isn’t always golden, to avoid the whole ‘people being run over’ thing.

There’s a line of thinking that EV sounds should resemble traditional car sounds. Fair enough. That’s familiar. But it does also feel like the car noise equivalent of save buttons looking like floppy disks. And it’d be good if we started to reduce noise pollution (sorry, VRRRMMMM! fans). And maybe it’s not ideal if all the cars continue going VRRRMMMM! because that would allow old petrol ones to hide in plain sight. At least until everyone’s going over 18mph, at which point legislators lose interest in EV sounds, because tyre and environmental noises take over.

Here in my (electric) car

Gary Numan Cars
He feels safest of all in cars. Although his wasn’t pumping Hans Zimmer out of the bumper.

So the question becomes what these EV sounds should actually sound like. Being a child of the ’80s, I reckon there’s potential here to make Gary Numan very rich. Or, perhaps, Madness. But, sadly, few people other than me would like 1980s hits blaring out of every EV as their owners got them going of a morning. And those cultural references would baffle anyone outside of the UK or who is under 40 anyway. Hence the push for EV sounds you’d recognise as an actual car. And, because money, that are also identifiable with a brand.

CloudArmy recently explored this subject in a case study, looking at car brands venturing beyond VMMMM! – or at least shaking it up. BMW worked with Hans Zimmer to create a “rich, immersive cordial effect similar to a film score”, which I can only imagine was more Inception than Pirates of the Carribean. Audi went for realistic and natural samples. Polestar had a conceptual bent – sounds that could be “heard and pinpointed by pedestrians” but “reduce annoyance and fatigue over time”.

The public wanted more Audi and Polestar and less Zimmer – sounds that were familiar, non-abrasive and not jarring. Teflon for the ears. Accordingly, CloudArmy recommended less tonal sounds that worked well with limited EV external speakers, and suggested industry standards – which presumably made Zimmer want to spear them with a G clef.

VMMMM! and vigour

Fiat 500e
One of these parping out classical? Possibly lovely. Dozens doing the same: less so.

So it turns out I was wrong, which, shockingly, isn’t the first time. In this corner of tech, creativity isn’t necessarily a boon. And car companies have been thinking about their own distinct takes on VMMMM! a little more than they should have done. I mean, there’s even a Fiat that pipes out a loop of classical.

Now I think about it properly, this is awful. What we need to know as individuals are that we’re not about to me mown down, rather than go “Oooh! Beethoven?” And anyone living near a slow-moving road probably doesn’t want to replace ‘sort of like a river if you ear-squint a bit’ with a cacophony of ‘soundscapes’, as if 50 radios had gone rogue and simultaneously started begging for attention.

But with brands wanting to be distinct in every possible way, harmonisation feels unlikely. It’s impossible to think that all car companies would ever agree on basic terms (pitch changes to denote acceleration, for example), let alone actual sounds. So different versions of VMMMM! it is – at least for now.

Still, we should probably think ourselves lucky: at least Nokia never made an EV.

Profile image of Craig Grannell Craig Grannell Contributor


I’m a regular contributor to Stuff magazine and Stuff.tv, covering apps, games, Apple kit, Android, Lego, retro gaming and other interesting oddities. I also pen opinion pieces when the editor lets me, getting all serious about accessibility and predicting when sentient AI smart cookware will take over the world, in a terrifying mix of Bake Off and Terminator.

Areas of expertise

Mobile apps and games, Macs, iOS and tvOS devices, Android, retro games, crowdfunding, design, how to fight off an enraged smart saucepan with a massive stick.