Feel the noise: giving EV supercars a soundtrack

Giving EV supercars an emotive soundtrack is the next big challenge for high-end manufacturers

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It’s not difficult to imagine the world’s supercar makers huddled in a bunker somewhere, nervously laying out their defensive strategy as the tidal wave of electricity set to wash over their industry barrels ever closer. Because with it comes the inevitable loosening of their kung-fu grip on world-beating performance.

The fact the Tesla Model S is technically faster than the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ, at least to 100km/h, has surely stirred some espressos over at the Italian brand’s HQ. And that’s only the beginning; as more and more mainstream brands embrace battery-powered performance, things are only going to get faster.

Worse still, these makers of automotive exotica are wedged between a battery and a hard place, because to join the electric masses means giving up their only remaining trump card: emotion.
It’s no secret that supercars sell almost exclusively on it. On theatrics. On excitement. On heads whipping around when they hear one rumbling down the street. And electric cars, with their incessant, flaccid whining as they gain speed, remain as spine-tingling as a bowl of off-brand cereal.

“It’s the emotion,” Lamborghini’s chief technical officer, Maurizio Reggiani, told Wheels at the international launch of the Nurburgring-annihilating SVJ. “And that emotion is related to the sound. For me, an electric car must be like an instrument that must be able to play music, and that music must be real.

“And that means to use aerodynamics to generate the sound, which must be related to the car’s functionality. Sound that must be a Lamborghini sound, and that is occurring naturally, not being faked.”

But recognising that Lamborghini will need a way to inject soul into their electric future is the easy part. The much more difficult step is actually inventing a way to create this mysterious wind-generated soundtrack.

For that, Lamborghini has secretly commissioned two universities – one in the USA and one in Europe – to create and patent the technology needed to create a sound that can stir the emotions using nothing but rushing air. It’s all very hush-hush for now, but the Italian brand says it’s on the cusp of announcing a “robust” patent that will change the way we view (and hear) electric cars.

“Using the air, you can make whatever sound you want. But it must be something that will define Lamborghinis of the future,” Reggiani says.

“We haven’t yet signed the NDA, but we have something really robust in terms of patent. One of the universities is in Europe, the other is in in the USA. They’re working on it.”

But it’s not just the sound, or lack of it, that’s currently holding Lamborghini back. There’s also the pesky problem of sustained performance – something conventional battery storage solutions are notoriously terrible at providing. And for this, Lamborghini has turned to a third university.

The brand has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tasking researchers there with inventing new and more durable energy storage systems that will allow a Lamborghini EV to perform at track speeds for as long as possible.

“At this moment, the state of the electric components don’t allow us to say that there can be a pure electric Lamborghini,” Reggiani says. “Why? Because the main requirement for something to be a Lamborghini Super Sport is that it must achieve more than 300km/h, and it must be able to perform three hot laps of the Nurburgring.

“Today, no battery can do this. For this reason, we moved to MIT and a laboratory dedicated to energy storage. We have tasked them with studying a new kind of supercapacitor that is able to provide three times more energy storage than is available today.

“Will it be possible? I don’t know. But if you don’t look forward, then it’s impossible to think that you can have an electric Lamborghini.”

Fake it until you make it 

The path most trodden by EV makers is to create an artificial soundtrack, with manufacturers promising everything from a deep V8 rumble to the futuristic bubbles of a car from The Jetsons.

Interestingly, though, we once celebrated the sweet silence that accompanied the introduction of electric vehicles, picturing cities free of the noise pollution ICE vehicles create. But that was before studies found near-silent EVs were as much as 40 percent more likely to have an accident with a pedestrian, owing mostly to the fact that people couldn’t hear them coming. Now, the EU has legislated that, by July next year, all new EVs will need to make some sort of noise when travelling at city speeds.

Making beautiful music

Fellow Italian supercar maker Ferrari also recognises the importance of sound when it comes to marketing its cars. So much so, in fact, that engineers there claim they spend as much time tweaking the soundtrack of every new car as they do fine-tuning the driving dynamics. “We always tune the exhaust like you would tune a unique instrument,” one engineer told Wheels. “You are buying a Ferrari, so you appreciate the sound, and so we specifically create different levels of sound, different tones of the sound.”


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