What Should Driving an Electric Vehicle Sound Like?

Whether you’re the driver or just along for the ride, sound is an immersive, imaginative part of the in-car experience. Automotive brands are built around a symphony of sonic cues that elicit a visceral reaction from their drivers—the quiet of a cabin, the growl of an engine, the pulse of the sound system, even an iconic song that scores the drive or the marketing campaign.

These audio-led engagements evoke brand attributes like luxury, quality and performance, and influence how drivers feel from the moment they get behind the wheel.

In the race to lead the electric vehicle (EV) market, some early entries overlooked this essential element. As EVs produce little to no organic sound, sound design is not only noticeably absent from the drive but also from all the other tones, chimes and melodies that can and should accompany the new operating experience.

What does “power on” in an EV sound like? Could audio alerts calm a driver’s range anxiety? How could sound design enhance on-the-go charging? And if you’re launching a completely new EV brand, how could sound define it?

EVs bring new opportunities for automakers to enhance or completely reimagine their brand’s sonic identity. And a well-composed sonic identity can do everything from delight existing customers to entice new ones into a product trial.

Move from safety concerns to sound minds

Without an engine, EVs are comparatively quiet, especially at low speeds, which has caused some safety concerns. EV minimum sound regulations now have manufacturers experimenting with synthetic sounds that can alert pedestrians and cyclists to prevent potential injuries. This call for audio alerts has inspired some automakers to consider the importance of sonic strategy in differentiating their brands.

At GM, engineer and creative sound director Jay Kapadia sees sound as a new way to create brand identity. His team has developed an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS) for GM EVs that distinguishes nameplates from one another. As he told The Detroit Free Press last Fall, “The moment you have a Hummer passing by you, even with your eyes closed, you’ll know it’s a Hummer. The moment you have a Cadillac Lyriq drive by, you will know it’s a Lyriq.”

Brands will need to focus on creating consistent sonic experiences—no matter when, where, or how they’re heard.

Steve Keller, Studio Resonate

Rivian saw these alert requirements as a branding opportunity as well, seeking to develop a voice for its EVs by leaning into natural sounds to both standout from, and blend in with, the external environment. As more and more EVs hit the road, the automaker believes brands will have the power to fundamentally reshape city soundscapes, replacing traffic noise pollution with something far more appealing.

As auto companies evolve into tech companies, automobiles are bringing sound to the forefront of their design conversations.

“Product designers pay close attention to how audio drives the consumer experience at every touchpoint; everything from sound distribution to branded harmonies are considered during the development phase, with no aspect left unaddressed,” says Jenn LaRocco, VP, technology and Web3 strategy at SXM Media. “Sound is both subtle and prevalent in the relationship between consumers and tech usage, and it receives ample consideration during the development phase.”

Power immersive brand experiences

As technology moves the industry closer to self-driving cars, EV or otherwise, vehicles are becoming a space for immersive experiences. Audio not only provides context for what people are seeing and directs their attention, but it can also leave lasting impressions.

“As we move more and more seamlessly through multiple immersive spaces, having a distinct sonic identity will be a key point of differentiation and recognition for both brands and users alike,” says Steve Keller, sonic strategy director at Studio Resonate. “We know that sonic logos and brand voices are extremely effective in driving recall and brand salience, but simply owning these audio assets won’t be enough. Brands will need to focus on creating consistent sonic experiences—no matter when, where, or how they’re heard.”

Though the market for fully immersive in-vehicle experiences is likely beyond this decade, the opportunity for brands to use audio to drive interest is here now. For example, 3D audio techniques used in an advertisement help prospective buyers imagine themselves behind the wheel of an EV. All the real-world sound design and engineering comes to life through 360-degree sound, bringing the carefully crafted sound design from the product experience into carefully crafted audio advertisements.

And as more digital-first auto experiences like virtual showrooms and test drives in the metaverse emerge, a consistent sonic presence will create familiarity and favorability with the brand as consumers effortlessly flow from virtual to IRL.

Educate through audio

The speed of technological advancements in the auto sector shows no sign of slowing, and brands are eager to reassure consumers about new technology to drive adoption. While new EV registrations are still a fraction of the total new vehicle marketplace, interest is growing and digital audio listeners are taking notice.

SXM Media asked its audience for their thoughts on electrification and 63% would consider a hybrid or battery electric vehicle (BEV) for their next vehicle purchase or lease. This is significantly higher than the general population, which stands at 24% very likely to consider, according to the J.D. Power EV Index 2022.

The increased interest among digital audio listeners may be due to their comfort with emerging technology and digitally led experiences as they consume audio through smart phones, connected car, and connected home devices, and are among early adopters of podcast listening. And podcasts, a medium known for educating listeners, are a great place to explain new tech to leaned-in minds.

Stand out with sound

Experience with an EV drives desire to own one. As brands continue to compete for the same growing audience of EV-curious consumers, sound can help them stand out.

Sound immerses, it creates meaning and evokes memories, and like every other thoughtfully selected design element, it can define a brand’s key attributes, driving consumers from discovery to trial to purchase and onward through ownership.