New Ford Mustang has a ‘quiet mode’. Are we about to enter the era of synthetic engine noise?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 06 Oct 2017 15:38

Car fans love the sound of a sporty engine firing up in the crisp morning air. It’s one of the joys of owning a sports car. Your neighbours, on the other hand, are likely to find this as irritating as a burglar alarm, barking dog or power tools being used at anti-social hours. So, what to do?

Well, if you’re Steve von Foerster from Ford, you come up with a ‘Good Neighbour Mode’ for your V8-powered Mustang. The idea of a selectable exhaust valve isn’t new, but what von Foerster has brought to the mix is the ability to pre-programme your car to be more socially responsible towards your next door neighbours.

With the new Mustang, you can now decide when the exhaust will be on its Quiet Start setting and the times it will give that full, throaty V8 roar. It’s achieved simply by choosing which hours are preferable for each mode. You can be the perfect upstanding citizen between 8pm and 7am and leave your nearby resident to slumber without being disturbed by engine noise.

Shhh! Ford has created a "Good Neighbour Mode" to quieten down its racous V8 Mustang.

What Quiet Start does is knock off 10 decibels from the sound of the Mustang V8’s motor when it fires up and drives away. That’s a considerable drop from its normal 82 decibels, especially when you consider decibel ratings are not linear, so a rise of 10 decibels is large.

For instance, 80 decibels is similar to a coffee grinder working away a few feet from your head. Lower that to 70 decibels and it’s more like having the radio in the living room. Quite a difference, then.

A not-so-quiet Mustang... in a built-up area.

The famously raucous-sounding Mustang now gets a “Good Neighbour Mode” – Wonder what Lt. Frank Bullitt would make of it?

A round of applause to von Foerster and Ford for helping us maintain neighbourhood relations and make a big-engined GT that bit more acceptable.

Yet, there’s a flipside to this idea that we also need to consider. With the rise of electric vehicles, the noise produced by cars is dropping to the point where they are almost silent in operation.

The Pagani Zonda – one of the world's loudest cars.

The Pagani Zonda 760RS – purportedly the loudest production road car ever made.

An example of this is offered by Nissan. When it developed the Leaf, its engineers had to design a whole new windscreen wiper motor as the one taken from an existing petrol-powered model was just too loud. Without an internal combustion engine to mask the noise of the wiper motor, it was intrusive.

That’s how quiet EVs are, but there is a safety issue as a result of this that pedestrians often don’t hear battery-powered cars approaching. There are very obvious consequences with this, particularly for the many who are using earphones or their smartphone while walking.

To address this concern, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the USA is making it mandatory for all EVs weighing less than 10,000lbs (4.5 tonnes) to emit an audible warning at speeds below 19mph from September 2019.

There’s no guidance on what that noise should be other than it should offer sufficient warning to pedestrians. At speeds over 19mph, it’s reckoned the noise from the tyres generate enough audio warning to alert passers-by to the vehicle’s presence. There are also cyclists, motorcyclists and groups such as the elderly and blind that need to be considered here too.

For car makers and anyone else interested in the sounds produced by the internal combustion engine in its many and varied forms, this creates an opportunity.

One of the major criticisms of EVs from car enthusiasts is the don’t have the emotional connection of noise. It’s such a vital component of the driving experience, so EVs need to get this nailed to be fully accepted and successful.

It might be nearly the end for the V12, but could its sound continue?

That doesn’t mean every EV has to give out a grumbling, woofling V8 soundtrack as you switch on and pull away, but something more intriguing that an electronic beep would be welcome. It’s also likely many drivers will appreciate an artificial engine noise piped into the cabin.

Again, this is a chance for car makers to offer drivers something fun. What could be more smile-inducing that heading off in your zero-emission supermini but with the engine noise of a V12 piped into the cabin when you’re feeling in the mood? Or, if you’re in a more restrained mindset, a gentle burble or even the warble of a classic car’s motor.

Artificial engine notes have been a feature of Renault Sport cars in recent years.

Some Renault Sport cars featured “synthetic” engine noises.

All of this is easily possible through the car’s infotainment and has already been trialled by some car makers. No doubt, there’s a whole army of apps that will become available for just this effect in EVs.

Another point worth noting is offering an artificial engine noise inside an EV could aid the transition from petrol and diesel to zero emissions vehicles. Take away the sound of the engine and many drivers struggle to know when to change gear or adjust their speed.

The sound from under the bonnet is intrinsically linked to their driving behaviour. With this, many drivers will feel uneasy, even if they cannot instantly pinpoint what it is that’s missing from the driving experience.

Should EVs get syntheic sounds?

Should EVs be offered with artificial engine noises?

We’ve seen in the past that attempts to make major changes to driving attitudes and behaviours is a slow process. It’s taken a generation to make seat belt wearing the norm and just as long before drink-driving became socially unacceptable to the great majority of drivers.

Clearly, noiseless EVs are not a social menace in the same bracket as this, but they are a big change from most drivers are used to. Easing that change by keeping a driver’s senses fed with familiar noises is a simple and effective way to providing the stepping stones to a cleaner, lower emissions driving landscape.

That might seem an unlikely outcome for technology that’s been developed on a V8-powered sports car like the Mustang, but this is the topsy-turvy motoring world we now inhabit.

One things for sure, if EVs with artificially piped in engine noise allow car fans to commute to the sound of a racing V12, thoroughbred V8 or whatever pricks up their ears, a battery-powered future sounds a lot more enticing.

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