Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have been rapidly growing. In the global car market, their share has increased from around 4% in 2020 to 14% in 2022. However, this means dominating the global vehicles sales is internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.
Known as ‘range anxiety’, the fear of running out of battery power while on the road is one reason why people are hesitant to adopt EVs. On the other hand, research raises another question of interest: could the appeal of car sounds be a factor influencing drivers to choose environmentally harmful cars?
Unless an ICE is turned off, it will always produce some noise as a byproduct of converting fuel into motion. Electric motors are also guilty of making some noise; however, you’ll quickly notice when getting behind the wheel that their dull whine is significantly quieter than the roar of an engine.
A beneficial aspect of EVs is that they give off fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their ICE counterparts; however, the sound they make lacks the emotive pull that attracts people to ICE vehicles. This can be seen clearly in motorsports. When droplets of fuel escape onto hot exhaust pipes – known as overrun – the vehicles generate a loud series of pops and cracks that ignite the passion of fans.
Emotional response and car culture
We can break down the reasons behind the emotive influence engines hold over people by examining research in the field. The sound of a car’s engine can be a thrilling and emotional experience for many people. It can also activate a sense of nostalgia for some people.
Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, authors of the 2002 book ‘Autopia, Cars and Culture’, state that car sounds seem to “evoke ancient associations with primaeval creatures, be they mythical monsters or beastly animals, beings of and by which we are in equal measures terrified and fascinated.”
Due to the importance of vehicles and car culture in many societies, cultural considerations can also have an impact on the appeal of loud car exhaust noise.
For example, Japan has a widely celebrated street-racing culture. A classic Japanese manga cartoon, Initial D, became a popular animated story that described street racing taking place at night in the mountainous Gunma prefecture of central Japan. A tradition of illegal nighttime races along winding mountain passes was influenced by the tale in Japan.
Also playing a role in its appeal are the specific characteristics of a car’s exhaust noise. According to research from 2006, certain frequencies and harmonics are more pleasing to the ear than others.
These characteristics are often preferred in sporty cars. In fact, many modern ICE cars have their exhaust notes tuned, sometimes even artificially, to sound more pleasing.
Research has also explored the impact of engine sounds on our brains. This study revealed that the specific characteristics of engine sounds have a significant effect on neuronal activity in the auditory cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing sound.
Neuronal activity remained longer when exposed to a preferred engine sound, indicating that people’s auditory and neurological reactions to car engine noises can influence their subjective preferences for those sounds.
What about quieter EVs?
Our emotions are stirred by the powerful roar of a petrol engine, which is firmly embedded in car culture and could even stimulate our brain. However, EVs hold their own unique appeal, albeit in a more subdued manner.
According to research, drivers are more relaxed due to the peaceful sound of EVs. The brain activity of four London taxi drivers was observed in 2018 by psychoacoustician Duncan Williams while they operated both electric and diesel black cabs. Driving electric vehicles has been proven to increase happiness, calmness, and focus compared to driving diesel-powered vehicles.
A different study that examined the driving habits of EV drivers in the US came to a similar conclusion. It was discovered that EV drivers typically drive more calmly and smoothly, both while accelerating and braking. In the same study, they even travelled different routes than ICE drivers.
The aim of EV drivers to maximise the environmental advantages of their car may, at least in part, be the driving force behind this more laid-back driving approach. However, the effects of this kind of relaxed driving go beyond just environmental protection and personal enjoyment.
It might result in fewer accidents, less road rage, and greater general health. These benefits are especially important when you realise that, on average, one person is killed or badly injured in a car accident in the UK every 16 minutes.
All is not lost for those who love the sound of a noisy car engine. Some car makers have experimented with acoustic synthesisers in EVs to make them sound more like petrol engines, including BMW and Porsche. Nevertheless, quieter EVs will become the preferred option for everyone’s benefit in order to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and build safer roads.