It’s a good thing the internal combustion engine will die slowly, because we’ll need time to taper off our ICE addiction. We’re not addicted to the oil changes, ignition defects, carbon monoxide, check-engine lights or gas fill-ups. But we are indeed addicted to the ICE soundtrack. We like engine noises, and it’s been that way since childhood. Some of us could identify passing neighborhood cars before we were tall enough to see out the living room window. And now we’ve grown up to relish exotic cars in part because we hear them long before, and after, we see them. So the question is: Can we get excited about a muzzled future dominated by electric and fuel cell vehicles? Watch these videos if you dare. It’s OK to cry. Remember, we’re all addicts together.
Video challenge 1 Electric dragster
Video challenge 2 Electric monster truck
Video challenge 3 Formula One sound comparison 2013 (V8 engines) to 2014 (V6)
Some irony is afoot: While some kinds of motoring are turning down the volume knob, others are cranking it up. Exhaust tweaking has graduated to exhaust twerking. Automakers are literally slipping fake exhaust notes into the cabins of certain cars. That’s as vulgar as Miley Cyrus. But it makes perfect sense, because it’s a scientific fact that certain engine noises excite us. A 2008 study by the Hiscox Insurance Group found that the sound of a Maserati instantly boosts testosterone in listeners while the sound of a VW Polo decreases it. And, get this, women are more affected than men. So we can’t diss automakers like BMW for resorting to sound augmentation. Both the M5 and the new i8 use a lip-synched soundtrack. BMW isn’t crazy. And “60 Minutes” wasn’t crazy for dubbing revvy engine sounds into Tesla Model S footage. Stupid, yes, but not crazy.
Why do we like car sounds? Answering that question would mean dragging this site into the catacombs of psychological claptrap. But we can skim the surface:
1. We don’t like all engine noises. Lawn mowers are boring.
2. Oh, we like big engines instead? Nope. Tractor-trailers, school buses, farm equipment, dump trucks and harbor cruise boats don’t do much for us.
3. Alrighty then, we like the sound of cars with big engines. Nope. Small displacement cars can stir us. Remember the Lotus Esprit? Heck, remember the Acura Integra and Toyota Celica GTS in the early days of variable valve timing and cam lift?
4. Alrighty then, we like a specific type of car-engine sound. Wrong again. A Shelby 427 Cobra sounds nothing like a Lexus LFA, but both raise our antennae.
5. Alrighty then, we have a general animal instinct to react with excitement to certain sounds, but there’s so much individual variation that we can’t really hang our hats on anything specific.
If number five gets the win by saying nothing, then clearly this exercise is going nowhere. We’ll never understand our relationship with auto sounds. Let’s fast-forward. The future of auto enthusiasm clearly is splitting into two camps: the quiet and the loud. We have GM, BMW, Jaguar, VW and Ford stoking our growl fetish by piping real engine sounds into the cabin, or faking them entirely, while Tesla serves up a genteel decapitator that is totally mute and invites us to wave goodbye to the growling ICE scene as if it’s an uncouth phase of life, like the Sabbath years. Why bring the noise if you don’t have to? Inevitably, with time, that’s exactly how we’ll see it. Until then, we’ll have to forgive ourselves if we find it a bit anticlimactic when a Tesla Model S P85 launches from a traffic light without saying goodbye, leaving us with nothing but some displaced pebbles. Sheesh — how will this play out in video games? Wait, we’re adults. Got it.