Can electric cars make music?

Can cars make music? This is the premise behind a research project that is looking into inventing new sounds for the age of the silent electric and hybrid vehicle, a sound that responds and returns something back to the environment.

Electric cars emit very little noise. Legislations in Europe and the US, however, will soon dictate that they must alert other road users. What we’re seeing though is a focus on sounds that are about warning or are heavily imprisoned in the old age of the motor car: roaring engines, the depiction of speed, of aggression, even fake Ferrari engine notes.

But what if we look to it from an entirely different angle to discover the aesthetics of sound and the responsiveness of it. Or simply – how can the car respond to the city around it through sounds. And why not use this an opportunity to completely re-imagine the vehicle sound?

Electrification deserves its own sound, say Sonic Movement, a research project headed by a group of designers, artists and musicians. Our cities have developed but the sonic landscape remains primitive and disordered.

The brainchild of designers James Brooks and Fernando Ocana, the project is being backed by technology firm Semcon who are working with avant-garde musician/artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst. Herndon’s work sonically explores the intersection between people and technology, whilst Dryhurst is looking into the blurred edges between art and technology.

The team looked at multiple cars and how the sounds working together can build a symphony. They pinpointed sounds in a three dimensional way, creating elements for when a car goes faster or slower, turns an angle or sits idle. The soundscapes here show some of the ideas being explored at the moment.

‘What is the aesthetics of sound and the responsiveness, which allows the car to respond to the city around it,’ says Ocana. ‘We need to influence the legislation so as not to live in a world of fake Ferrari engine sounds and find a suitable humanistic sound,’ he notes, adding so that the car is no more the villain.

Listen to Sonic Movement talk with musician Jarvis Cocker here.

Learn more about the project and listen to some of the sound ideas here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read about Fernando Ocana’s previous project Monoform that also looks into how the car can respond to its environment. Plus have a look at James Brooks’ shared transport project – both of there were presented at their final year Royal College of Art vehicle design show in 2011.

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