Electricity killed the radio star

Remember the howls of derision when the first 1.6-litre turbo V6 hybrid F1 cars droned their way around Melbourne in 2014? And, one year after that, the screeches of protest when Porsche announced that its next Boxster would have a four-cylinder engine?

We'll probably have a good old laugh about all this in a few years' time when variants of the washing machine motor will be powering most, if not all, cars, and firms like Sony and LG will be the biggest players on the world stage (automotive included). Here and now, though, we're all still highly energised by our beloved internal combustion engines - and it's mainly to do with the noise they make.

A few weeks back, Jenson Button made an unfavourable comparison between today's low-revving F1 cars and the 21,000rpm V10 screamers of yore. The fact that F1's new stars-and-stripes-top-hat-wearing overlords are trying to spice up the sound by implanting new microphones in the cars might not seem that inspiring, but it shows the importance that we, the paying public, attach to the right sort of mechanical noise. Throw in the strong indication from Porsche, two years after the anti-reveal of the four-pot Boxster, that its much more soulful flat-six can after all continue in the next Boxster Spyder, and we start to see the power of the human earhole.

How will the manufacturer of an electric vehicle get around the fact that their motor is about as sonically interesting as an unoiled mangle? Eventually, of course, we will become accustomed to whatever we're served up, but in today's critical transition phase from litres to volts, it's odd how disinterested EV makers seem to be in the idea of making their 'engines' interesting.

It's not going to be easy. An electric motor is an extremely simple thing that quietly converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. The conversion of fuel into energy is a lot more exciting, involving noise, explosions, vibration and smells, none of which you would hope to find in an electric motor. The only smell you're likely to get from an EV - other than the whiff of disappointment arising from the lack of fuel-burning - is the rather worrying hot-wire stench that will be all-too familiar to anyone who's ever owned a Scalextric set.

The inherent tedium of EVs isn't electricity's fault: it's just the way science goes. But it's an issue that will surely have to be addressed in order for there to be wiggle room for the marketing bods to operate in. Presently, the only point of difference between one EV and another is how many motors it has.

The assumption is that progress will move the electric motor on from its present makeup of a rotor and a stator inside a grey metal casing to something rather more exciting, visually as well as aurally. Before they were shrouded in black plastic to put us off the idea of home maintenance, many car engines succeeded in taking on an aesthetic as well as a mechanical appeal. Even the ugly ancillary-encrusted Porsche 911 motor has managed to evolve into an objet d'art in the Singer/Williams 500hp Mezger unit, a wonderfully rendered and brilliantly integrated masterpiece that will sound as good as it looks

Unless and until a similar degree of glamourisation is brought to bear on the electric motor, the 'engine' as a basic concept will shrink back from its current starring position to much more of a bit-part role. And that will be a pity.

In the meantime, the internal combustion engine is hanging in there with some interesting death-throe developments of its own. Mazda's Skyactiv project is probably the most intriguing mechanical development programme that most people have never heard of. And the variable compression ratio engine that was previewed by Saab's hinging-head design of the early 2000s has just reappeared nearly two decades later in Infiniti's QX50 prototype, scheduled for production in 2019.

As your old Dad probably used to say, there's nowt new under the sun. Let's hope that some of that enlightenment will shine on the electric motor.





P.H. O'meter

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Comments (56) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Sorted_ 22 Nov 2017

    Companies like Kufatec already have this covered.

    Tesla V8 emulation - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpX4rNtVP-g

    Setting up - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2JPi3vcqtI

  • V8 FOU 22 Nov 2017

    Valid article.
    Noise of an engine is so much of the whole driving experience - that's why I own so many V8's.
    Not sure a lot can be done with the EV's - although some enhacement of the Jet-like whistle of the Formula -E cars might be quite cool.

  • unpc 22 Nov 2017

    I thought that Nio EP9 sounded ace. That said most EVs don't make any noise as such but for mass market stuff that's probably a good thing.

  • Dynamic Space Wizard 22 Nov 2017

    It's a very disappointing article. I saw the headline and I hoped a DJ had electrocuted itself. laugh

  • Decky_Q 22 Nov 2017

    I once drove a supercharged 2.2 with no oil in the gearbox (I didn't know until after as the SC hid the noise until it was too late) and the combination of metallic whistle and speed dependant whine was very pleasant in a futuristic kind of way. I think PH electric cars will sound similar in the future.

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