As a Prius owner for 7 years, I know this story well. In parking lots, pedestrians ignore me. They make absolutely no effort to move out of the way. When running on electric power, my car is nearly silent; so much so that there is a serious debate over whether or not Toyota should be required to feed engine sounds to a front-mounted speaker. I am hoping they will; imagine the fun in hacking the code to make your little hybrid sound like a Ferrari.
The Prius problem is still pending, but the seed for non-native engine noises was firmly planted. Lately, the matter has nothing to do with safety.
One of those tough choices that cars force us into is the one between performance and gas mileage. Government-mandated fuel economy standards were implemented in an effort to clean up our air (although they actually caused us to drive more – another story) and now automakers are endlessly struggling to find ways to brag about MPG and performance in the same commercial. Everyone wants a Ram-tough gas-sipper. All the clever engineering resulted in muscle cars that were starting to sound like my Prius, and that’s not OK.
But if you mash the accelerator on the 2015 Ford Mustang, you can expect to hear a deep, masculine roar. How can that be from a car that brags of 28 MPG on the highway? Curious drivers need look no further than the Mustang’s sound system.
As engines became smoother and more efficient, they also got quieter. BMW, Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota – these automakers and many others share a dirty little secret. They have been piping faux engine rumble through the car’s speaker system for years.
The whole sound thing was a major technical hurdle for Harley-Davidson, whose signature brand was the distinctive rumble of its iconic motorcycles. Project LiveWire, the company’s first all-electric hog, overcame multiple engineering challenges, not the least of which was its auditory statement. In the tough choice between “Fix it or feature it”, Harley engineers punted to the marketing group. Their answer, to quote chief marketing officer Mark-Hans Richer – “Think fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.”
With cars, it’s a different story. One would think that sophisticated audio technology would enable a wide range of possibilities, perhaps allowing the driver to select a sound that would suit the mood for each trip. Go to the touchscreen, decide whom you want to impress, and let the on-board computer do the rest.
But motor heads are feeling deceived; computerized noise is for toy cars and not for the real thing. The fraternity of car lovers has a well-established price for membership; if you want the earth-shaking rumble of a big V-8, you need to spend more money, suffer the lousy gas mileage, and do your part to wreck the Earth. Anything less is just lip-synching.
Perhaps the Ford engineers are too young to remember Milli-Vanilli.