Michael Mauser

Michael Mauser

Harman, a leading provider of automotive acoustic products, is using its acoustic research to help OEMs develop electric vehicle (EV) sounds that satisfy not only legislation, but also the expectations a consumer has about a brand or vehicle.  With the initial rulemaking slated for the beginning of July, Matthew Beecham talked with Michael Mauser, Executive VP and Co-President Infotainment and Lifestyle about the research and how the legislative move may open as yet untapped opportunities for the marketers to use the vehicle’s sound.

Harman has published the initial findings of your sound research. Can you summarise what you were looking for and what results you discovered?

We conducted the research in Europe to progress our HALOsonic sound synthesis project. We are already, in partnership with Lotus Engineering, leading the development of sound emitters to increase pedestrian safety around electric and hybrid cars.  Legislation in this area is fast approaching; US law will require that the vehicle generate the sound automatically and the initial rulemaking is slated for July 4, 2012. We expect Europe and Japan to follow this path. So, from a legislative perspective, we believe the research can help carmakers define the type and level of sound for the safety of electric vehicles. But there is more for the engineers and marketing teams to consider from the data. The results may guide them to create sounds to support an increased focus on sensory cues as a way to subconsciously communicate the brand and its values.

What results did the research uncover?

We interviewed 600 people with involvement in the car purchase process and it produced very interesting results. As a first headline, the majority of respondents, the figure is around 57 percent, say they want electric or hybrid cars to sound like real cars. This really doesn’t tell the full story though and it is necessary to look much deeper than this. We then segmented the audiences –for example family car owners, SUV owners, sports car owners etc. Here, the differences were more startling; family car drivers prefer a hum or whirring sound such as a hairdryer, leaf blower or washing machine for their electric cars. Sports car drivers wanted a louder, throaty sound but were deeply concerned about authenticity. There were differences between genders too, with female respondents preferring quieter sounds.

It doesn’t seem surprising that the majority of respondents want their electric cars to sound like their cars today though?

Perhaps not but we completed further research that looked more at the expectations consumers have, both at an emotional and functional level. For example, we wanted to find out what emotions the engine sound should stimulate? Does it sound like you expect it to?  Together with the researchers MMR Research Worldwide, we came up with a lexicon of words to best describe a car, brand or sound emotionally and functionally. This part of the research was able to suggest from a range of sounds played the ones most appropriate to meet both emotional and functional requirements of a particular car in the eyes of the consumer.

I’ll give you some examples as an illustration. The words most commonly used by consumers to describe an electric car include ‘trendy’, ‘adventurous’ and ‘quirky’ and to describe it from a functional point of view included ‘environmentally friendly’. Ask consumers about a petrol engine sound and the lexicon covers words such as ‘confident’, ‘powerful’ and ‘trustworthy’. In these early days of adding sound, we feel care must be taken to ensure any sound used is able to support both the emotional and functional conceptualisations of the electric car and its brand.

To summarise, simply adding petrol internal combustion engine sound to a ‘green’ car could potentially create dissonance and it’s a lost opportunity to stand for something.

So what does this mean for the OEMs?

With a clean sheet available for electric cars we think that the OEMs have a real chance to create signature sounds that will truly convey the emotional and functional requirements as well as communicate the brand. By understanding the consumer’s expectations, their likes and dislikes by car type, gender and age, we think we can help the carmakers shape the right sounds and highlight the elements that should be adjustable as well as the sounds that should be avoided. The OEMs we are talking to are taking various approaches but all could benefit from this alternative form of research data.

Is it planned to share this data to at some stage?

We plan to share the data with our HALOsonic customers in the coming months.

Are there any cars planned to take your products?

There are already a number of vehicles using elements of our HALOsonic technology on the road today. The first vehicle fully-equipped with a HALOsonic system will be on the road next year.

What happens next with the research?

We are working closely with a prominent music producer Steve Levine to help us define what these sounds should be based upon the research data. He will be working closely with the HALOsonic team in the coming months creating sounds for playback in the cabin as well as externally.  In essence, music has the ability to stimulate emotional responses and a producer particularly one such as Steve who has worked across music and film can help us create sounds that stimulate the right emotions. Think how the soundtrack in a movie plays on your emotions and how certain melodies are uplifting and make you feel good. This knowledge, not openly available in the car industry today could really help OEMS to get there quickly and provide better support for the brand, authenticity etc.

In addition, Harman engineering team is developing software that would facilitate collaboration with those OEMs that may already have some ideas of what sound they would like to achieve. The graphical interface would enable the car manufacturers to easily modify various parameters during sound tuning process. With Harman’s involvement in both professional recording and the automotive industry, we feel we are in a unique position to support the OEMs in not only creating the sounds but also providing authentic playback in the car. This is a truly exciting time and one full of opportunities for all carmakers. We are talking about IC engine cars as well as hybrids and EVs benefitting from better sound management.

See also: FEATURE: Sounds for driving