A Tricky Transition

EV noise regulations will obviously jive better with some brands than others. For firms like Harley-Davidson, for which sound is a vital and iconic aspect of its bikes, it’s to the point where the company actually attempted to copyright the sound of its motors around the turn of the millennium. The legal requirement for artificial noise is seemingly less-than-welcome news.

To better understand how Harley’s handling the auditory aspects of its electric bikes, I spoke with Glen Koval, Chief Engineer for LiveWire, Harley’s first electric model. Koval says it mainly came down to answering: How do we develop the right and appropriate sound for a soundless motorcycle?

“It wasn’t necessarily ‘let’s go make some artificial sound in the motorcycle,’” explained Koval. “It was about giving it a premium sound. We didn’t want to hear things rattling, buzzing, or other annoying wind sounds, so we start by trying to bring that premium nature out and where we felt we could differentiate was where we laid out the architecture. We have a bevel gear drive system that basically delivers power to the belt-drive and that bevel gear set was optimized to give us our signature sound on Livewire. As we build out our EV portfolio, we will be paying attention to each vehicle having characteristic sound and making sure that it fits within our DNA.“

Despite the deadline for the sound requirement only a year-or-so-away, when I inquired as to whether or not Harley was working on artificial sounds for its future electric lineup, I was told the company didn’t currently have anything in the works… at least, that they were privy to (or were at liberty to speak on). However, with the law fast approaching, it’s only a matter of time before Harley is forced to implement artificial sound in its electric bikes (regardless as to whether it coincides with H-DNA). At the same time, H-D is currently in the midst of trying to reshape the perception of who (what?) it is as a brand, and as Connor Moore points out, the new noise requirement is a “golden opportunity to be expressive in communicating” that.

A Cacophony Of Faux Sound

Those who oppose the legislation worry about where this is all leading. In the EU, officials have asked that the EV sounds be similar to traditional gas engines. Here in the States, the NHTSA is offering more flexibility. Not only did the Administration already loosen the sound requirements for the forthcoming law but, it’s also letting individual manufacturers come up with their own noises instead of using a uniform sound across the board. The NHTSA also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of allowing companies to give drivers the option of selecting from a number of different sounds.

This could easily result in major metropolitan areas turning into seas of vehicles, collectively generating a symphony of spaceship noises, beeps, chirps, and other push-notification trills. Despite the more stringent regulations in the EU, some of the noises proposed for electric buses in the UK consist of weird bubbling sounds and other annoying beeps and tones, so you can add that to the auditory mix as well. And if you think you can just turn off the AVAS on your car or bike, think again, as that won’t be an option after the law comes into effect.

On the flip side, experts like Moore worry that too much uniformity presents its own problem. “My concern is with how heavy these restrictions currently are, that many EVs will ultimately sound very similar to one another which takes the power away from the individual brands and softens differentiation in the marketplace which has been at the core of the automotive space since its inception.”

So, we might not know exactly what the coming years have in store for electric cars and motorcycles, but we can be damn sure the future of EVs won’t be a silent one.

Tim Huber is a Los Angeles-based motorcycle journalist. He’s done work for RideApart, Revzilla, The Vintagent (where he’s EV editor), Bike-urious, EatSleepRIDE (where he’s managing editor), and a few one-off stories for other outlets, both online and print.