Automakers Can’t Figure Out What Electric Cars Are Supposed To Sound Like But BMW Has Some Ideas

Illustration for article titled Automakers Can’t Figure Out What Electric Cars Are Supposed To Sound Like But BMW Has Some Ideas
Image: BMW

Your engine is a speaker, or at least your internal combustion engine was. But the motor in any electric car is definitely not a speaker. Electric cars have no exhaust note, and carmakers are still trying to figure out what to do about the loss of one of the best sensory aspects of driving.

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BMW has asked Hans Zimmer — of Hollywood fame — for help making new EV sounds, and it’s given us a small soundbite of what it calls “BMW IconicSounds Electric,” which is just the sound of its upcoming EV M cars:

It sounds about right, like how you would expect a futuristic machine in a sci-fi or action movie to sound. It’s equal parts Blade Runner and Tron. It’s got something else, though, which doesn’t sound appropriate for an M car.

When I think of an M car, I think of something athletic and purposeful, something light and on a pivot, but the sound that BMW and Zimmer have come up with doesn’t sound like it can change direction. It builds up; it sounds like anticipation. It’s kind of a slow sound. I still think it sounds good, though.

I’m just unsure it’s a match with the M ethos. The sound is also distinct from what other carmakers have come up with, such as Opel or Lotus, and I don’t know who is going to strike upon the definitive EV sound first. Or whether that sound will be standardized at all. I suppose it won’t be.

Illustration for article titled Automakers Can’t Figure Out What Electric Cars Are Supposed To Sound Like But BMW Has Some Ideas
Image: BMW

Electrics will sound different from carmaker to carmaker, and that’s a little weird because of course there’s no technical reason for that to be the case.

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A naturally aspirated car sounds vaguely the same across marques. The sweet induction note of individual throttle bodies is not dependent on the badge the car wears. It’s going to be a little jarring to drive in different EVs and hear a different sound every time, even in cars from the same automaker.

I don’t know that it’s a good idea, but it’s the way things seem to be going, as even BMW states some of the sounds Zimmer came up with are exclusively for M cars, while the i4 and iX will have their own sounds:

In the version developed specifically for electrified BMW M models, the drive sound of the BMW i4 is charged with extra energy.

[...]

Overall, the drive system note displays a less harmonious but engagingly rousing and technical sonic profile. Acceleration sparks a rich intensification of the soundtrack’s development, authentically reflecting the car’s performance character. “When you press the pedal of an M car, you suddenly get goosebumps all over your body,” says sound designer Renzo Vitale. “We translated this feeling into a drive sound that expresses a fusion of superior power and flowing energy.”

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Mmm hmm.

IconicSounds Electric comes as standard in the BMW iX and can be specified as an option for the BMW i4. In cars with earlier build dates, the new sounds can be imported retrospectively via Remote Software Upgrade, should the customer wish. The new spectrum includes one ready-to-drive sound and one stop sound, plus a driving sound which will be made available in the relevant version for BMW models and BMW M cars with electrified drive system.

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BMW also said the Zimmer sounds will be available as upgrades on current models. Meaning, you can pay to get these sounds in your BMW EV, which feels like a bad approach and gives me flashbacks to the Apple CarPlay subscription thing, which was bad.

Sounds like they, and the car business as a whole, have a lot to figure out.

Illustration for article titled Automakers Can’t Figure Out What Electric Cars Are Supposed To Sound Like But BMW Has Some Ideas
Photo: BMW

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. Periodista automotriz, Naturally Aspirated Stan.

DISCUSSION

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Perhaps it’s a contrarian opinion around here, but what an electric car should sound like on the inside is “quiet, very quiet”;  and I think people’s tastes will change to favor this inherent advantage as the become more accustomed to it.

Any sound effects directed toward the outside of the car for pedestrian safety are another matter.