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Fake engine sounds, gearboxes and vibrations: Do we really want electric cars to behave like petrol cars? | Opinion

Adding some drama to a performance EV makes sense, but how far does it need to go?

I feel like I'm going to need a quick disclaimer before I start here, that being that I'm in favour of finding ways to make electric cars more exciting to anyone who's been a petrolhead and is open to skipping the servo.

I spent years driving multiple sports cars each week in a previous job, evaluating all kinds of fun things from P-plate-friendly hot hatches to licence-losing luxury barges, but driving under electric power is a far more common occurrence these days.

And not once have I thought to myself, "I wish this electric car rattled like there was a dirty big V8 up the front", but apparently someone at Dodge's parent company Stellantis has.

What's led me to thinking about this is a recent patent filed by Stellantis, outlining a creation it calls a vibroacoustic enhancement (VE) system. Basically, the system takes the idea of synthetic engine noise in an electric car and pumps it up to eleven.

Not only does Stellantis - likely for the electric successors to Dodge's muscle cars - want its cars to still sound like they're rocking stonking V8s on the inside, but they're also looking at making them sound like there's a V8 rumble coming from an exhaust on the outside.

But wait, there's more! The next part of this is for the car to feel more exciting by making it vibrate as if there's a V8 up front, using sensors from factors like accelerator pedal position and motor speed to determine the vibrations.

It’s not because I don’t think electric cars should be exciting, but rather that pretty much every time I’ve noticed faux engine sounds in a sports car, it’s been because they don’t quite sound right.

Why? Because the sound of a combustion engine without the associated vibrations would cause a sensory dissonance.

I've driven plenty of V8s, even a few that reside under the Stellantis umbrella thanks to Jeep and Chrysler, and the sound and vibration of the car is a fun little reminder there's a rather lot of Hemi sitting in front of your knees.

But trying to replicate that in an electric car sounds a little like turning up the A/C fans to try and replicate the feeling of being in a convertible - all it takes it a little bit of attention to remember it's all pretend, becoming a reminder that there is, in fact, not a Hemi sitting in front of your knees.

The sound of a combustion engine without the associated vibrations would cause a sensory dissonance.

It's not because I don't think electric cars should be exciting, but rather that pretty much every time I've noticed faux engine sounds in a sports car, it's been because they don't quite sound right. Best I can recall being told about a car's synthetic digital engine 'enhancement' is along the lines of 'not too bad' or 'better than you'd expect'.

I can't imagine I'm ever going to get into an electric car and be impressed that it vibrates like there's an engine in the front. In fact, normally the reason electric cars excel in certain roles is the exact opposite.

Electric cars lacking the level of noise, vibration and harshness (or NVH) of combustion cars should be the ideal, especially if they're not a performance car - double goes for a luxury car.

But there are already ways to make EVs more dramatic and engaging without making employing 'HEMI_V8_exhaust.WAV' or giving you an arcade seat-style shake-up, and a couple have already been put into practice to some degree.

There are electric BMWs out and about like the i5 and i7 that are available with what the brand calls ‘BMW Iconic Sounds’.

Deserving of a quick mention is Hyundai's 'e-shift' system, which attempts to replicate the feeling of a dual-clutch gearbox in an electric car.

It uses paddle shifters to 'change gear' and computers respond by adjusting power delivery and regenerative braking to mimic the feeling of a modern sports car temporarily dropping acceleration in the split-second between gears.

It's been tested by CarsGuide's Deputy Editor James Cleary in the Hyundai Ioniq 5 N - and it's been given the tick of approval.

Similarly, there are electric BMWs out and about like the i5 and i7 that are available with what the brand calls 'BMW Iconic Sounds', synthesised sounds that respond to driver input depending on the drive mode that don't try to mimic the sound of an engine.

Hans Zimmer with BMW's Creative Director of Sound Design Renzo Vitale.

Developed with composer Hans Zimmer (whose career in film scoring is so prolific that it has a separate wikipedia page as the rest of Zimmer's page is mostly a list of awards), the Iconic Sounds feature pumps orchestral sounds into the cabin that intensify with acceleration or mellow at low speeds.

It sounds gimmicky at first, but it grows to be quite exciting, and is a sliver of evidence that the shift to electrification can bring its own ways to be engaging rather than poorly replicating those of the past.

Focusing on making a new exciting sound also means avoiding producing something that will inevitably be, at best, almost as good as the original. Now, there's a new original.

Chris Thompson
Journalist
Racing video games, car-spotting on road trips, and helping wash the family VL Calais Turbo as a kid were all early indicators that an interest in cars would stay present in...
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