Killing the roar: electric vehicles can calm us down

·3-min read
Is reducing engine noise the key to calmer driving?  (Getty Images)
Is reducing engine noise the key to calmer driving? (Getty Images)

If you ask people which sense they wouldn’t mind losing, most would be prepared to sacrifice hearing. But hearing is vital for survival – the brain is always listening, dealing with sound processing long before vision. Because we don’t have ‘earlids’, we are at the mercy of our responses to sound, which is why unwanted noise is very distressing.

As a psychoacoustician, I deal with the psychology of sound and car manufacturers often seek me out for help with engine noise. When something is repeatedly exploding two to three metres in front of you, it’s usually too loud and annoying unless you’re protected in some way.

As a psychoacoustician, Dr Duncan Williams is often asked by car companies to help them control engine noise (Duncan Williams)
As a psychoacoustician, Dr Duncan Williams is often asked by car companies to help them control engine noise (Duncan Williams)

EVs offer the chance to solve that in a neat way: by reducing the noise. In general terms, modern life is noisy – with mobile devices, people playing music, shouting. Driving an EV is quiet, and we have found that it can make you less stressed than driving a car with a petrol engine.

In 2018, I placed an electroencephalogram [EEG, used for measuring brain waves] on the heads of four professional cabbies in central London and monitored their brain activity as they drove both electric and diesel black cabs.

We found that the drivers were more focused, calmer and happier when driving the electric version of the taxi – but counterintuitively they were less relaxed when the taxi was standing at the lights. They missed the low bass rumble of the idling diesel engine and found an utterly silent car disconcerting.

The solution is simple ‒ you can design the sound of the EV to have a bassline rumble if the driver wants it. EVs don’t just give the option to create a calmer driving environment with zero sound; they also offer the ability to control the sound environment. They give you options that you don’t have in an internal combustion engine, or Ice, car.

An EV offers the ability to control your sound environment – it gives you options that you don’t have in a petrol car

You might say that isn’t authentic, but so many sounds are mixed that there is almost no authentic sound outside the natural world today. Take cinema – the sound is mixed for the big screen so the loud stuff is louder; then the balance is changed for the home mix, which is why if you watch a pirated theatrical mix you will struggle to hear the dialogue.

Classic FM, like other commercial radio stations, currently uses dynamic compression to make the music easier to hear in a car.

Some people just love the sound of a car engine. One year I went to 24 Hours of Le Mans when it featured an EV Audi racing around. It had to stop to recharge, but when it was on the track nothing could touch it. When it came past, however, all you heard was the tyres on the tarmac and everyone booed. It was the big V8s that got the cheers.

People love the sound of a V8 because we like artificial fear without real danger. The roar of a lion is similar to a V8 engine. It’s like horror films or roller coasters – a V8 is like an imaginary pet lion. Unless some teenagers pull up behind us revving their V8… suddenly the threat level changes.

An EV offers the ability to control your sound environment – it gives you options that you don’t have in a petrol car. It’s not perfect, but it’s controllable. And that’s what we want from noise, whatever it is. It’s the noise you don’t choose that stresses you out.

For more on the Evening Standard’s campaign for electric cars, visit standard.co.uk/plugitin

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