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Sound for Electric Vehicles

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A design case of prototyping an interactive auditory feedback system for Electric Vehicles. Designed to overcome the dangers resulting from the absence of mechanical feedback sounds (and therefore, acoustic warning for pedestrians) in the electric car, this prototype seizes the opportunity to play around with the potentialities of product sound branding and sonic interaction design.
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Sound for Electric Vehicles
Dr. Gianpaolo D'Amico, Sara Lenzi
Lorelei, Italy
1. Introduction
In the last three years the increasing diffusion of low-emission hybrid
and quiet cars has dramatically become an issue for blind pedestrians to
travel safely, because these vehicles don't provide appropriate audio
cues about their presence or proximity on the roads.
In 2009 Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the
Blind
1
, raised the issue of silent electric vehicles with the following
words: "We urge all automobile manufacturers to work with the blind in
designing vehicle sounds to alert us to the approach, speed and direction of
vehicles so that both drivers and pedestrians can safely use America’s
roadways".
Since then the problem of electric vehicles (EV) and hybrid electric
vehicles (HEV) has received an increasing coverage both on traditional
and new media, and raised the attention of communities and car manu-
facturers all over the world. At the end of 2010 there are three pending
legislations (Japan, U.S.A. and European Union), which have been dis-
cussed to give manufacturers the guidelines for adding an artificial
sound solution to EVs and HEVs engines for safety reasons. While some
manufacturers (Chevrolet, General Motors) decided to collaborate with
the National Federation of the Blind, others have already entered the
1
National Federation of the Blind's website: http://www.nfb.org/
Sound for Electric Vehicles
88
market with a sound device dedicated for EVs and HEVs (Nissan LEAF
and Toyota Prius).
The public debate is now more open and fertile than ever, with a
growing community of EV enthusiasts (or critics), who are collecting in-
formation in favour (or against) the application of an artificial sound so-
lution to electric silent engines. In January 2010 the FIAMM Group, the
multinational Italy-based company, asked the acoustic & sound design
agency Lorelei to work on the design and development of an audio solu-
tion for EVs and HEVs.
In this article we present the current state of the project, the steps al-
ready developed and a vision of the future goals, fully aware that the de-
bate on sounds for electric vehicles is still at the beginning and repre-
sents one of the most important challenge for the sound design and au-
dio branding industry so far.
1.1 The client: FIAMM Group
FIAMM
2
was founded in Italy in 1942, when eng. Giulio Dolcetta pointed
ELETTRA (a manufacturer of products for the navy) from the Group Pel-
lizzari Arzignano, and turns it to FIAMM (Fabbrica Italiana Accumulatori
Motocarri Montecchio). In 2000 the FIAMM Group was born, now pre-
sent in 60 countries, with manufacturing facilities, sales and technical of-
fices, and a wide network of importers and distributors. The Group pro-
duction consists of starting batteries, industrial batteries and horns for
automotive, marine and for first priority emergency vehicles (ambu-
lance, police, etc.).
In recent years FIAMM made major investments in new technologies,
entering the field of green economy, thanks to the production of OLED
light (for automotive and general lighting), AGM batteries (for hybrid
and Stop & Start engines) and the so called salt batteries (for electric
traction, energy accumulation from renewable sources, smart grids and
photovoltaic parks).
2
FIAMM's website: http://www.fiamm.com/
Gianpaolo D'Amico, Sara Lenzi
89
1.2 The agency: Lorelei
Lorelei
3
is a sound & acoustic design agency founded in 2008 in Italy that
is active in the fields of sonic interaction design and sonic branding. In
particular Lorelei works for the sonification of public and private spaces,
and for product sound design. In the last years the agency developed so-
lutions for bathtubs, beds, electric vehicles and temporary structures for
national and international firms. The team is composed by professionals
in the fields of sound design, music composition, interaction design,
software development and brand communication. Some members of Lo-
relei are also active in disseminating the culture of sound and audio de-
sign, writing for the blog sounDesign
4
and taking part in national and in-
ternational conferences, festivals, public talks and lectures.
2. Sound for Electric and Hybrid Cars
As initially stated by the National Federation of the Blind, EVs and HEVs
are very dangerous because of the absence of sound emitted by the elec-
tric engine. In particular, these silent cars can seriously harm the follow-
ing group of pedestrians: visually impaired people, children, bicyclists
and, last but not least, animals.
In September 2009 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administra-
tion
5
published the technical report Incidence of Pedestrian and Bicyclist
Crashes by Hybrid Electric Passenger Vehicles (R. Hanna, 2009), a study
on the incidence rates of pedestrian and bicyclist accidents, conducted
comparing HEVs and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles under
similar circumstances. The result of the study underlined that HEVs were
involved in a higher number of crashes than ICEs when in specific vehi-
cles low-speed maneuvres (turning, stopping, backing up or moving in a
parking space).
3
Lorelei's website: http://www.loreleiproject.com/
4
SounDesign blog: http://www.soundesign.info/
5
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website: http://www.nhtsa.gov/
Sound for Electric Vehicles
90
In a recent interview Deborah Kent Stein, chairwoman of the National
Federation of the Blind's Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian
Safety/Quiet Cars
6
, declared that this report “demonstrated that the si-
lent operation of hybrid vehicles is an issue for all pedestrians, not just
the blind”
7
. Other useful information come from the noise levels meas-
urements of both combustion and electric engines. In fact an electric ve-
hicle is silent at a speed between 0 and 20 mph, but when exceeding 20
mph the noise level converges, due to the dominance of tires and wind
noise. The issue of silent deadly cars can therefore be described under
two conditions:
vehicles travelling with a speed between 0 and 20 mph;
vehicles making specific manoeuvres (parking, reversing, turn-
ing, etc.).
In the last years many solutions were studied and proposed: GPS devices
for blind people, radar systems (already introduced in cars to detect ob-
stacles), flashing lights and sound devices. The adoption of sound seems
to be the most effective solution for many reasons. First of all sound is ef-
ficient according to our perception, because a person (or an animal) is
able to detect a sonic input faster than a visual one. Audio cues can also
be designed to convey information about the state of the vehicle not only
to pedestrians, but also to the driver. In addition a sound-based system is
cost-effective, if compared to other proposed technologies.
Anyway the public debate recently showed a big concern about the
adoption of a sound solution, because it can cause an increase of sonic
pollution in our roads, in opposition to the trend of the last ten years of
reducing sound emissions in conventional combustion engine vehicles.
On these assumptions the issue of quiet electric cars opens a new sce-
nario, in which the use of sound represents a huge branding opportunity
6
National Federation of the Blind's Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety/Quiet
Cars' website: http://quietcars.nfb.org/
7
National Federation of the Blind teams with Chevrolet and GM to incorporate a safe sound
alert for electric vehicles and hybrids, november 2009:
http://www.nfb.org/nfb/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=518
Gianpaolo D'Amico, Sara Lenzi
91
for cars manufacturers, which could customise their products. Indeed
sound can be a branded solution for both external warning sounds (for
the safety of pedestrians) and internal feedback sounds (for information
to the driver).
At last the dangerously absence of sound is an issue related not only
to HEVs and EVs, but more generally to the next generation of ICEs, in-
dustrial vehicles and other special vehicles (motorcycles, public trans-
port, etc.). In this novel and open scenario, Lorelei worked for the FIAMM
Group with two main goals: to design audio content for providing exter-
nal sonic cues for pedestrians and finally to design the prototype of a de-
vice to control and diffuse these contents on a electric vehicle.
2.1 Methodology
Lorelei developed a specific process of work for the issue of electric cars,
which consisted of three main stages: a preliminary study to define the
concept of a novel sonic solution, a phase of sound design for the crea-
tion of the sounds assets, and a final stage in which the solution is ap-
plied using the software simulators developed by the agency and the
hardware devices prototyped together with the customer.
A first part of this process was divided in the following activities: con-
text analysis, concept analysis, brand analysis, technology analysis, sonic
content analysis, sonic sketching and software prototyping. Three differ-
ent teams were involved in these activities: a group of researchers to
study the theoretical issues and define the guidelines for the proposed
solution; a group of sound designers and engineers to design and de-
velop the sound assets; a group of software engineers to develop the
software simulation.
A second part of the process is still in progress and consists of the fol-
lowing steps: hardware prototyping, testing sessions in a real environ-
ment, dissemination and communication campaign. In the following
paragraphs a brief description of the first group of activities of this proc-
ess is given.
Sound for Electric Vehicles
92
Context analysis
A study was conducted about the public context that lead to the devel-
opment of the deadly silent cars issue and its state of the art. This step
involved analysis and monitoring of: research and data reported by
stakeholders (National Federation of the Blind, National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration, car manufacturers), articles and discussions on
conventional media (magazines, newspapers), web-based discussions
(forums, blogs, communities, social media), political debate (guidelines,
laws, political claims), available or foreseen technological solutions, pub-
lic tests and surveys with associations and consumers on different pro-
posed sound solutions.
Concept analysis
It is a preliminary analysis to identify a concept for the design of the
sound contents. This step consisted of a study of the history of the elec-
tric car revolution, its social, philosophical and cultural meaning. A deep
analysis was made on its representation in arts, cinema, literature and in
advertising and communication campaigns created by all the most im-
portant car manufacturers.
Brand analysis
The sonic branding opportunities define a future scenario in the field of
sound for electric vehicles. At this stage, our brand analysis involved the
study of an abstract concept which could be described properly with the
questions: "What are electric cars for us? What is their identity? How
should they sound like then?". The brand analysis lead us to a concept
which can be summarised with the following claim: "State of the art
Technology allied with Nature".
Technology analysis
A series of hardware/software work sessions were conducted to test two
different technologies provided by FIAMM: the Multi Sound Horn device
(see Figure 1) and a well defined category of external speakers. These
sessions aimed to understand what sonic features could be developed in
the next steps of the activities.
Gianpaolo D'Amico, Sara Lenzi
93
Sonic content analysis
The team analysed the features of warning and attention sounds, with
tools and studies based on psychology of perception, psychoacoustics
and acoustics.
Sonic sketching
The first sonic content was designed working on the core elements iden-
tified by the previous steps: context, concept, brand, technology and
sonic analysis.
Software prototyping
Lorelei's software team developed a dedicated virtual simulator based
on Max
8
(see Figure 2), with the aim to create the sound contents and
test their dynamic evolution according to a number of real-time data
coming from the car (speed and acceleration).
Figure 1. Multi Sound Horn (MSH) device provided by the FIAMM Group.
8
Max is a visual programming language for music and multimedia developed and main-
tained by San Francisco-based software company Cycling '74: http://cycling74.com/
products/maxmspjitter/
Sound for Electric Vehicles
94
2.2 The solution
The software simulator developed in the final stages of the process was
connected to the hardware systems provided by the customer, in order
to evaluate different sound solutions and improve the features of the
sound contents created by the sound design team.
The proposed solutions were based on the following assumptions:
the sound has to provide a warning for all the categories of pe-
destrians and also for animals and cyclists;
it must respect and preserve the current soundscape;
it has a strong and high potential for brand identity and brand
awareness;
a potential extension to silent conventional and special vehicles
has to be considered.
Figure 2. An example of patch in Max developed for the virtual simulator.
At the current stage of the project the proposed solutions are three (see
table 1). A first solution is modelled on FIAMM's MSH device: the dynam-
ics of the sound content is based on the perceptive recognition of rhyth-
mic patterns. For this solution we proposed the following claim: EV is
natural, not artificial.
Gianpaolo D'Amico, Sara Lenzi
95
A second solution is modelled on the external loudspeakers provided
by FIAMM: the dynamics of the sound is still based on the recognition
and evolution of rhythmic patterns. For this case the proposed claim is:
EVs are technologies allied with Nature & Mankind.
A third solution is still modelled on external loudspeakers, but in this
case the vehicle dynamics combines the adoption of pitch shift and
rhythmic patterns. This solution suggests a higher potential for sound
branding and it is based on the claim: EVs are state-of-the-art technolo-
gies allied with Nature & Mankind.
model device concept
1 MSH EV is natural, not artificial
2 external loudspeaker EVs are technologies allied with Nature &
Mankind
3 external loudspeaker EVs are state-of-the-art technologies allied
with Nature & Mankind
Table 1. Proposed solutions: the virtual simulation software is connected to the
hardware systems in order to design different models of sounds.
3. Conclusions
In this article we presented the current state of a work aimed to design
the sound for electric vehicles. We presented a future oriented solution,
with no fake engine sound, which proposes sound contents consistent
with the novel concept of the electric car.
Three different sonic solutions were designed, based on the assump-
tions that sounds must warn pedestrians without degrading the sound-
scape and can be modelled according to product audio branding princi-
ples. Future work will address the prototyping of a dedicated hardware
to conduct testing sessions in environments with real users, in order to
Sound for Electric Vehicles
96
improve and verifiy the adopted sound solutions. At the end Lorelei and
FIAMM believe that sound for EVs can be a great opportunity to create a
new soundscape for our lives in the future.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank all of the professionals who are part of
this amazing project: Anna Paola Lenzi, Arianna Ulian, Luigi Mastandrea,
Damiano Meacci, Jorge Seco, Patrick D'Arpa, Paolo Santini, Piergiorgio
Balbo, Filippo Principi, Paola Passeri and Francisco Gilbert. A special ac-
knowledgement to Centro Tempo Reale and Francesco Giomi for their
support and advices.
About the Authors
244
Dr. Gianpaolo D'Amico
Post-doc researcher at the Media Integra-
tion and Communication Center and
member of the board of operations at the
Master in Multimedia Content Design of
the University of Firenze, Italy. His re-
search activities focus in the field of inter-
action design, sound design, creative
thinking, information architecture, multi-
media applications and education. He is the co-founder of sounDesign,
the first Italian blog about sound & audio design. He works as a consult-
ant for the sound communication & acoustic design agency Lorelei.
Cetin Demirci
Cetin Demirci graduated from the Univer-
sity of Oldenburg with a double major in
political science and music, with special
interest in media and communication. He
studied film scoring at California State
University in Long Beach, which indicated
the initial spark for his interest in acoustic
communication. This focus, in turn, led to
an interest in the way brands
communicate with consumers, using spe-
cific music and sound. In addition to his
studies, Cetin completed an internship at Universal Music Strategic Mar-
keting and participated in various marketing projects. He then wrote his
thesis on acoustic brand communication at the University of the West of
England in Bristol.
About the Authors
248
Sara Lenzi
A saxophonist and an electroacoustic
composer, Sara Lenzi holds a degree in
philosophy of science. She teaches Sound
Installation and Multimedia Composition
at the Musical Conservatory of Rovigo,
Italy. Her artistic work deals mainly with
sound installations and soundscape pro-
jects. She is the co-founder of sounDesign,
the first Italian blog about sound & audio
design. In 2008 she founded the sound
communication & acoustic design agency
Lorelei, which has had international clients such as Architects of Air,
DADA, and FIAMM.
Alex Moulton
As the founder and guiding creative force
behind Expansion Team, one of the United
States' foremost audio branding and ad-
vertising music companies, Alex is respon-
sible for crafting the current sound of
many TV networks including CNN Interna-
tional, PBS, Discovery, Universal, A&E Bio,
Comedy Central, Vh1, and respected
brands like jetBlue, Motorola, Bank of
America, Target and American Express. A
critically-acclaimed recording artist and
globetrotting DJ by night, it was Alex's day job as a commercial and mu-
sic video director that led him to launch Expansion Team. Seeing a grow-
ing need for authentic music production for the ad world, he gathered
celebrated recording artists, Grammy-winning songwriters and seminal
DJs to score original music for TV. Nearly a decade later, the company
has grown into a multi-faceted audio branding agency and record label.
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