Engine Note Electronica

If I showed you a picture of a Velociraptor, you’d probably know what noise it makes: a hissing, tearing roar like shearing sheet metal. What about a Tyrannosaurus rex? Yep, Panthera Leo through a stack of Marshall amps. Thanks to Jurassic Park, we all know what dinosaurs sound like.

Or, we think we do.

All the growls, roars and hisses of those saurians were computer-generated to violently prod our fight-or-flight. The audience was thrilled, but it was artificial.

Ditto the new BMW M5. BMW has been getting so good at high-speed libraries that the M-version of the whisper-quiet 5-series is a bit… dull? It’s faster than ever, but lacks the aural thrill of its ancestry.

As a compromise, BMW created Active Sound Design; a system that generates engine noise and pipes it back into the cabin through the stereo.

A bit silly, but how often do we overlook the importance of a tuneful exhaust note to a thrilling drive? The snarl of a V6, the roar of a V8, even the joyful raspberry of a two-stroke Vespa; all provide an important soundtrack. So what happens when you hit the mute button?

That’s the question Audi is trying to answer with their upcoming R8 e-tron. The all-electric R8 supercar variant has the sleek looks of its V8- and V10-powered cousins, but pulls a Marcel Marceau when it comes to singing an aria on the winding road.

Anyone who’s driven a Prius on battery alone has marvelled at near-noiseless motoring. It’s the kind of thing that would appeal to Cold War nuclear submarine commanders: silently stalking the parking lot, following people back to their cars.

For these efficient slow-movers, noise is a safety issue. Cyclists, pedestrians and motorists compete for space in the urban jungle, so having audible warning of an on-coming car makes sense.

But for the electric and hybrid vehicles that move us in more than a transportational sense, there’s got to be something more. The sleek Fisker Karma demands better than a refrigerator hum.

Audi’s electric R8 sounds like Formula One as re-imagined by Kraftwerk, a blend of The Fast And the Furious and The Final Frontier. It’s a whirring warble like nothing else on the road.

It broadcasts the sound, not through exhaust pipes, but through two speakers mounted front and rear. Once 32 km/h is reached, the music stops for tire roar and wind noise to take over.

This, like it or not, is the future. The bellowing of big-block internal-combustion engines echo the roars of those terrible lizards as the asteroids of climate change and outrageous fuel prices draw closer. One day gearheads will be talking about kilowatt-hours rather than horsepower, amps rather than cubes.

Thrill to the blat-blat-blat of a Mini Cooper S on a down shift or the sonorous tenor of a Lexus LFA surging to red line while you can.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s days are numbered. The future is electronica.

Image courtesy of Audi

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