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The Sounds Of…

Much of the appeal of any new car – apart from factors like practicality and power – lies in the visual and tactile arenas. We admire the sleek lines or the bold aggressive chunkiness. We smile at the bug-eyed appeal of round headlights, such as those on the VW Beetle, or appreciate the clever styling achieved with pretty daytime running lights – or the classic Ring of Fire tail lights of an HSV. Chrome, interior lighting packages, exterior paint colour… it’s all visual. The interior styling also tends to cater to our senses of touch and comfort (kinaesthetics) with leather-wrapped this and that, lumbar support, heated seats and the like. Even a car with powerful acceleration and superb handling around the corners appeals to our kinaesthetic – it’s a human thing to enjoy the sensation of G-forces during acceleration and cornering.

We don’t tend to give the sense of sound much thought when picking out a new vehicle or even when driving, apart from what the sound system’s like (number of speakers, location and quality of speakers, input type…). However, we use our sense of hearing quite a lot when we’re in and around cars, although we’re less aware of it.

The role of sound in motoring was brought home to me rather acutely when I had a very close encounter with a hybrid vehicle in the supermarket carpark the other evening. It was getting a bit dark and I was waiting for a stream of cars to go past so I could get back to the old faithful Nissan with my groceries. One car goes past, then the next, so I tune out for a bit; then, as I hear the sound of an engine trailing away to one side and no sound on the other side, I start to stride forwards… only to pull up sharply as the hybrid that was last in the line of cars crawls past.  No damage was done, but this is something that we’re all going to have to look out for – literally look out for – as hybrids and electric vehicles become more common on our roads (and in the supermarket carpark).

As pedestrians and cyclists, we rely on our sense of hearing as an extra warning signal that something’s coming, especially when we can’t see down a driveway. I’m probably not the only one who had the mantra “Stop, Look and Listen” drummed in as part of road safety training and learning how to cross a road (along with Look Left, Look Right, Then Look Left Again).  I’m certainly not the only one to get a bit jumpy about the safety aspects of how silent hybrids and electrics are: last year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration legislated that quiet cars like these have to emit some sort of noise as a warning.

At the other end of the sound spectrum are the cars that you certainly can hear coming – like a former neighbour of mine with his 7-litre diesel Chevy. We all know the ones – the big bore exhausts, the V8 motors, the “muffler” that’s carefully tuned so the roar of the engine sounds just right. Now, these drivers are certainly aware of appealing to the sense of sound. Even if you’re not into big bore exhausts, most of us are not completely immune to the sound of a powerful engine doing its thing, even if we don’t quite go as far as former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson (the one we all loved to hate) doing a “Listen to it!  Just listen to it!” rant. And just don’t get me started on the Dukes of Hazard sol-mi-do-do-do-re-mi-fa-sol-sol-sol-fa horns…

Somewhere in between these extremes comes the driver who is indeed highly tuned into the sounds the engine – and indeed the whole car – is making. Maybe you are that driver.  This is the sort of person who drives passengers batty with a constant “What’s that noise?  I can hear something rattling!” This gets followed by frantic groping around the interior of the car trying to find and eliminate the cause of said rattle, with the end result that the offending pair of sunglasses in the glovebox has to be wrapped up in a beanie to silence it. This is punctuated by complaints about Funny Noises made by the engine that are only apparent to the driver. To be fair, car manufacturers go out of their way to reduce the on-road noise heard in the cabin and the sound of the engine does get used by mechanics as a form of diagnosis.

On the whole, however, the sound of an engine tends to be a subconscious or subliminal feature. We may not even be aware of it until one day, we hear a particular engine note and become overwhelmed by a rush of nostalgia, suddenly reminded of the car our parents drove when we were little, or the first car we owned. We have those moments when our hearts skip a little beat as we hear one particular engine amid lots of others, like a familiar face in a crowd, and we know that someone special to us has arrived.  And oh, the disappointment when we realise that what we heard was only another car of the same make and year… The sound of a car engine is something that affects us more deeply than we probably realise.

That’s my challenge to you this week: think about how your car sounds a bit more consciously (or mindfully, to use a buzz word). Are you a noise lover, a hypersensitive or do you like it quiet? Or do you have any suggestions about the sounds that hybrids and electrics ought to emit for safety purposes?

One comment

  1. Bruce Gill says:

    I certainly am aware of the sounds my car makes, and the quieter, the better for me. We have a hybrid that is certainly very quiet compared to any ICE car, but I haven’t yet skittled anyone in a car park. Last year we bought an Outlander plug-in hybrid that on electric mode is even quieter, but it has a default sound alert system at low speed that presumably is designed to help people hear it coming. I do turn it off sometimes, especially when driving with the windows down, as the quietness and efficiency of the vehicle is something that appeals to me (However, I do also appreciate the sound of raw power that my son’s V8 commodore makes!)

    June 26th, 2017 at 2:28 pm