If you have been impressed by a new car's high-end stereo in recent years, the odds are that you have Harman to thank for it. But the quality of your Spotify stream is not the only type of sound profile Harman works on. It also wants to make your EV sound like a V8 … or a spaceship or any other number of things.
Harman invited me to his R&D facility in Novi, Michigan to check out his work in EV sound synthesis. This development work aims to give EV a voice that is more than just a barely audible, high-pitched whale. My experience made me feel that Harman's work could strengthen everything from safety to future ways of personalizing a new car.
The sound of science
At first glance, Tesla Model S as Harman looks like someone else on the road. Inside, however, there are some extra wires and gears that come from the center console. It is the only sign that Harman has taken his way with this model S. Harman's sound synthesis works both inside and outside the vehicle – inside it uses the car's own woofers, while it is out, it depends on the speakers behind the body.
I experience two demos at Harman, the first is equivalent to a gas V8 engine. From the outside it sounds pretty beautiful – it's a bashuman butt at lower vehicle speeds, and when model S accelerates, it sounds like there's a gas engine under the hood that makes its way up the roof counter. Of course, there is no shift sound, because model S lacks a traditional gearbox, so I guess it sounds more like a V8 connected to a continuously variable transmission. Inside, there is a slight haze in idle, and it sounds exactly on a V8, because the model S picks up speed. I would lie if I said it was not a strange experience.
The other synthesized sound feels more suitable for an electric car. This one is called "futuristic", not really trying to mimic any single thing. It's much more subtle from the outside, with the type of a whoomping sound that sounds like something a Foley artist would whip up to join pictures of a computer-generated UFO. This one is more pronounced inside than outside, which comes straight out of Star Wars, and in combination with Tesla's stupid fast acceleration makes me really like being in a car from the future.
A new car boundary
As a supplier, Harman is responsible for a number of excellent sound brands licensed to various car manufacturers. Lexus Mark Levinson System? It's Harman. Lincoln's Revel? Harman again. BMW's Harman / Kardon? Okay, maybe it's obvious enough.
In fact, the sounds I experienced at Harman's Novi plant were the result of the work of car manufacturers, but that wouldn't say which. Right now it's a bit of a wild west scenario with this kind of work. According to a Harman spokesman, some OEM users have contacted the company only to get their audio synthesis hardware, while others want to work with the vendor to create clear sounds. Some arrive with expectations, while others are more willing to hear ideas.
Harman has the setting to do it later. The script creates the very sound of a team of one or two engineers, in addition to several others for evaluation purposes. It takes "a few weeks", according to a spokesman, to go from idea to concrete things, but it depends on whether Harman's customer behaves with his or her own expectations.
When the sound profile has been mounted before it gets into a car, it goes out to Harman's listening room. It is a fairly basic room with six leather chairs, a carpet, some echo-nixing material on the walls and a lot of speakers. Educated listeners first record the sounds before going through a single door leading to Harman's benchmarking lab.
The reference laboratory is more for the car's sound system, which represents the step between hearing the sound in the listening room and taking it out on the road. When it comes to more traditional sound system development, this is when Harman fits the speakers inside a demobil – the one I saw was a Hyundai Genesis sedan for the first generation – to ensure that the positioning is right and also to ensure
Safety benefits and beyond  The most obvious advantage of creating sound for EVs is security. EV is almost silent, which means that visually impaired pedestrians may not be able to tell when a car comes down the street. The governments have taken note of this problem, and in fact, the United States has asked car manufacturers to comply with new rules advocating external EV audio signatures by September 2020, and there are similar regulations in Europe and Japan. Some OEM users have already started adding these to their cars, but others are waiting for regulations to require it. Harman will soon have a built-in demand for systems like the one that is being developed.
There may also be other benefits. Adaptation is great for car manufacturers these days, but giving a vehicle a uniqueness is usually limited to aesthetics. Allowing buyers to choose from various external EV sounds could give retailers another way to cope with a little more money on the window sticker, or cars can come up with several selectable sounds that suit how a person feels on a particular day.
Although it can be difficult to think of disadvantages with something so simple, it is a couple. In terms of mandates, car manufacturers hardly flaunt their largesse – thus extra cost from adding this equipment would likely be sent to the consumer. New systems add complexity and weight, the latter of which can eat in the interval, but this is less of a problem here considering the size of the system.
Harman's spokesman told me that its development of sound synthesis is generally aimed at automakers. However, there is the possibility that a system like this is made available as an aftermarket alternative. At that time, it was just about selling a package containing the speakers and a digital signal processor, which would require professional installation.
As Harman notes, the whole industry is very much in its infancy. But as mandates stack up and EVs rise toward ubiquity, moving from the cottage industry to what may well be a hotspot of innovation and individualism. As far as we know, Harman managed to get ahead in the curve on this one.