(* but electric cars do)
Are you a bit worried about the noise your car’s engine is making? Don’t bother opening the bonnet, or ringing your mechanic. The best approach is probably to follow Formula 1’s example, and set up a working group to examine the matter.
“We must see if we can implement in the short, medium, long term, a bigger noise,” Jean Todt, president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, told reporters. “And that we will do and we will get unanimous agreement.”
What alarms Formula 1 about their cars’ engine noise, and probably doesn’t worry the owner of, say, a Vauxhall Zafira that’s making odd sounds, is that they aren’t noisy enough.
Many of us think that trackside at a Formula 1 race – where the spectators have to wear ear defenders if they want to avoid deafness – is an auditory hell which can only be compared to operating a pneumatic drill on an aircraft runway, or listening to Mumford and Sons. But Formula 1 fans are made of different stuff.
Ever since the introduction of the new V6 engines, they have been complaining that the noise now produced by the cars isn’t what they’re used to. The fact that last year’s 2.4 litre V8 engines produced around 780bhp and used 150kg of fuel in the average race, while the new turbo hybrid V6s use only 100kg of fuel, but put out 850bhp doesn’t seem to bother the fans. Apparently, an improvement in efficiency of 35%, and better performance, are less important to them than an ear-splitting scream as the cars go past.
The improved engines, however, were necessary because the manufacturers simply can’t afford F1 unless they can feed their technical advances into the future design of their commercial models. So if the manufacturers do give M. Todt and other fans of noise, like Bernie Ecclestone, a louder roar, they’re going to do it by some artificial tweak which has nothing to do with performance.
And interestingly enough, it’s something that car manufacturers have already had to start thinking about as they plan for the growth in electric vehicles. Because, with the exception of the wind and some tyre noise at higher speeds, and the occasional high-pitched hum from the electronics, EVs just don’t make any noise to speak of.
Apart from Bernie Ecclestone, for whom that’s presumably a nightmare, and other F1 noise purists, or the kind of boy racers who destroy their exhausts so that a Honda Civic sounds like a MiG fighter taking off, most motorists think that’s a good thing. About the only improvement I can imagine is some similar advance that would stop children constantly asking “Are we there yet?”
But it’s much more problematic if you’re a pedestrian, and a really serious hazard if you’re a blind pedestrian. Blind people rely on their hearing to help them negotiate traffic, and a silent car poses huge difficulties for the strategies they have previously relied on.
So there’s general agreement that some form of artificial noise needs to be added to EVs so that they provide some warning of their approach to other road users, including pedestrians. That’s less straightforward than it sounds (or doesn’t sound), though. You wouldn’t want a noise like that beep lorries make when they’re reversing, because it would drive you nuts if it were a constant presence– as anyone whose handbrake, or seatbelt, warning alert has ever broken could tell you.
Some people have thought of genuinely innovative solutions. If it is going to be an artificial noise anyway, why not make it birdsong, the sound of waves breaking, the clopping of horses’ hooves or selections from the Top Gear Driving Anthems box set? The problem with those is that the noise has to be recognisable as a vehicle to, for example, a blind pedestrian.
We could adopt some new convention – even something like horses’ hooves – but it would have to become indelibly associated with a car approaching. It would obviously help if there were some consensus among manufacturers; far and away the most likely, therefore, will be an artificial combustion engine noise. But at least your eco-friendly supermini might end up sounding like an F1 McLaren, even if a McLaren no longer does.