If you've been impressed with a new car's high-end stereo in the past few years, odds are you have Harman to thank for that. But the quality of your Spotify stream isn't the only kind of sound profile that Harman is working on. It also wants to make your EV sound like a V8… or a spaceship, or any other number of things.
Harman invited me to its R&D facility in Novi, Michigan to check out its work in EV sound synthesis. This development work seeks to give EVs a voice that's more than just a barely audible, high-pitched whine. My experience left me feeling that Harman's work could bolster everything from safety to future ways to personalize a new car.
The sounds of science
Upon first glance, the Tesla Model S that Harman kitted out looks like any other one on the road. Inside, though, there are a few extra wires and switches coming off the center console. That's the only sign that Harman's had its way with this Model S. Harman's sound synthesis works both inside and outside the vehicle -- inside, it uses the car's own woofers, while outside, it relies on speakers tucked behind the bodywork.
I experience two demos at Harman, the first being akin to a gas V8 engine. From the outside, it sounds pretty spot on – there's a bass-heavy rumble at lower vehicle speeds, and when the Model S accelerates, it sounds like there's a gas engine under the hood making its way up the tachometer. Of course, there aren't any shift sounds, since the Model S lacks a traditional gearbox, so I guess it sounds more like a V8 connected to a continuously variable transmission. Inside, there's a light growl at idle, and it sounds accurate to a V8 as the Model S picks up speed. I'd be lying if I said it isn't a weird experience.
The second synthesized sound feels more appropriate for an electric car. This one is referred to as "futuristic," not really attempting to emulate any single thing. It's much more subtle from the outside, with kind of a whoomping noise that sounds like something a Foley artist would whip up to go with footage of a computer-generated UFO. This one is more pronounced inside than outside, coming straight out of Star Wars, and combined with the Tesla's stupid-quick acceleration, it really makes me feel like I'm inside a car from the future.
A new automotive frontier
As a supplier, Harman is responsible for a number of excellent audio brands licensed to various automakers. Lexus' Mark Levinson systems? That's Harman. Lincoln's Revel? Harman again. BMW's Harman/Kardon? OK, maybe that one's obvious enough.
In fact, the sounds I experienced at Harman's Novi facility were the result of work with automakers, although it wouldn't say which. Right now, it's a bit of a Wild West-type scenario with this kind of work. According to a Harman spokesperson, some OEMs have approached the company solely to get their sound-synthesis hardware, while others want to work with the supplier to create distinct sounds. Some arrive with expectations, while others are more willing to hear ideas.
Harman has the setup to make the latter happen. The act of creating the sound itself is left to a team of one or two engineers, in addition to several others for evaluation purposes. It takes "a few weeks," according to a spokesperson, to go from idea to tangible thing, but that depends on whether or not Harman's customer shows up with their own expectations.
Once the sound profile has been assembled, before it ends up in a car, it's off to Harman's listening room. It's a pretty basic room, with six leather chairs, a rug, a bit of echo-nixing material on the walls and a whole lot of speakers. Trained listeners take in the sounds here first before walking through a single door that leads to Harman's benchmarking lab.
The benchmarking lab is more for automotive audio systems, representing the step between hearing the sound in the listening room and taking it out on the road. When it comes to more traditional sound-system development, this is when Harman fits the speakers inside a demo car -- the one I saw was a first-gen Hyundai Genesis sedan -- to make sure the positioning is right, and also to ensure that there isn't any buzzing or rattling.
Benefits to safety and beyond
The most obvious benefit of crafting sounds for EVs is safety. EVs are nearly silent, which means visually impaired pedestrians may not be able to tell when a car is coming down the street. Governments have taken notice of this issue, as well -- in fact, the US has asked automakers to comply with new regulations mandating external EV sound signatures by September 2020, and there are similar regulations in Europe and Japan. Some OEMs have already started adding these to their cars, but others are waiting for regulations to demand it. Thus, Harman will soon have built-in demand for systems like the one it's developing.
There can be other benefits, too. Personalization is big for automakers these days, but giving a vehicle some uniqueness is usually limited to aesthetics. Letting buyers pick from a variety of external EV sounds could give dealerships yet another way to tack a bit more money onto the window sticker, or cars could come with multiple selectable noises to fit the way a person feels on a given day.
While it might be hard to think of drawbacks for something this straightforward, there are a couple. When it comes to mandates, automakers hardly flaunt their largesse -- thus, any additional cost from adding this equipment would likely be passed to the consumer. New systems add complexity and weight, the latter of which can eat into range, but that's less of a problem here given the size of the system.
Harman's spokesperson told me that its sound-synthesis development is generally aimed at automakers. However, the possibility exists for a system like this to be made available as an aftermarket option. At that point, it would just be a matter of selling a package that includes the speakers and a digital signal processor, which would require professional installation.
As Harman notes, this whole industry is very much in its infancy. But as mandates pile up and EVs rise toward ubiquity, it's going to move from cottage industry to what could very well be a hotspot of innovation and individualism. As far as we know, Harman's managed to get ahead of the curve on this one.