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No. 208 September 2021


Images: press | Wojciech Pacuła

No 208

September 1, 2021

SILENCE, or a few words regarding ELECTRIC CARS

What is silence and what is an acoustic smog? Is music always better than the droning of a car? Or maybe we should change the direction in which we are going introducing more and more sounds into our environment? - About that and more in the text below.

HAVE RECENTLY READ AN ARTICLE ON ELECTRIC CARS. Its author, while drawing scenarios for the development of this field of motorization, devoted one paragraph to a seemingly incidental, almost insignificant thing, which, however, may change our habits. Well, one of the manufacturers announced that his car will play music - but not inside the car, for people traveling in it, but outside, for other road users, implicitly - for passers-by.

⸜ Tesla Model 3 is the entry level model of this manufacturer • photo press materials

The idea is not new, because already in 2017 the industry portal in an article entitled What should an electric car sound like? raised doubts about how such a car should "sound" like. Because at low speeds it is noiseless, and at higher speeds the noise is generated by air resistance and tires. For pedestrians, this is a very dangerous situation because we are evolutionarily sensitive to loud sounds perceived as a warning. Their absence lowers our vigilance.

Many of us have probably found out that it can end badly when a bicycle sneaked past us or an electric scooter ripped by. For over a hundred years of automotive development, successive generations have become accustomed to a specific response to a specific sound - in this case, an unnatural "growling" of the engine, signaling an approach of a dangerous object. With the popularization of electric cars, this warning will disappear. Therefore, on July 1, 2019, industry portals reported on the EU decision that requires electric car manufacturers to install loudspeakers and emit the sounds of a classic engine.

⸜ Illustration showing the expected radiation of the loudspeakers when approaching the intersection • photo mat. press releases

And now - at that time, i.e. in 2017, their manufacturers said that they would have speakers installed outside, through which a recorded (sampled) engine sound would be emitted. As predicted, the driver would be able to choose its type, for example the sound of a Lamborghini or a Porsche. The aforementioned EU regulation regulated this matter and it is already known that a given car will be able to emit the sound of an equivalent car with a classic drive.

Nissan presenting in 2017 its electric-drive concept car announced that its cars will emit music. And this information has recently returned, although the author of the news was this time a European manufacturer. Clearly, this is an idea that appeals to policy makers because they want to attract potential buyers to their products. Is it right? Is this the right way to change?

While browsing one of the magazines devoted to new publications, probably the bimonthly „Książki. Magazyn do czytania” |PL|, I came across a review of a publication that I found interesting. The small book Przewodnik dla audio-kulturalnych by MARCIN DYMITER with illustrations by JOANNA GĘBALA was intended as a short introduction to the world of sounds, intended for children. The form of the guide helps to implement the “teach-by-fun” postulate, and the perfect typography and beautiful drawings referring to the best Polish illustrations for children are its protagonist.

The guide is divided into four parts, dealing with the theory of sound, common space, private space, with the Audiokulturalny na co dzień chapter closing the whole thing. People, these are the things that should be taught in every kindergarten, in every school! Things that seem basic and "known", and yet - as the example of the discussion about the "sound" of electric cars shows - completely unknown.

There we will find an explanation of such terms as soundcape, "noise", "silence" and even "smog", meaning sonic one, obviously. Extremely important is the record of the UNESCO Music Council quoted by the author, made in 1969 on the initiative of Witold Lutosławski:

The General Assembly of the UNESCO International Music Council […] unanimously condemns the unacceptable violation of the personal freedom and of every human being's right to silence by the abuse of recorded and radioed music in public and private places. (p. 23)

Can you see where I'm going with it? - My point is that we are at the moment when we decide about the soundscapes of cities. The ridiculous idea that cars could emit music falls into the category of "acoustic smog". It seems, moreover, that this is a marketing "stunt" rather than a real postulate. However, we will almost certainly witness a shift from the emission of natural sounds - although everything in me rebels against this term in the context of mechanical noise, it is close to the truth - to the emission of artificially reproduced sounds. So, from the noise made by a product of human hands, we will move on to a noise that imitates it.

This means a paradigm shift, because while the former was inevitable and efforts were made to minimize it along with the development of techniques and technologies, the latter goes in exactly the opposite direction, that is, from silence to sound pollution. And although this, as I said at the beginning, is inevitable because there must be an "alarm" system for passers-by, perhaps this is a good time to limit its intensity. After all, the sound from the speakers doesn't have to be as loud as the real one, does it?

Let's recall Przewodnik… again:

Acoustic smog is the pollution of the world with noise. (…) When acoustic smog affects a person for eight hours a day, over the years it damages the hearing sense, can adversely affect the nervous system, cause anxiety, irritation and even aggression. (p. 16)

What's the author's advice? It is as simple as it is troublesome, because it is counter-intuitive for contemporaries:

A house without motors and too many electrical appliances is quiet and friendly. A whistling kettle, the clash of a knife on a cutting board, the crackle of hand-ground coffee beans or the regular creaking of a rolling pin. Hear how spilled rice, buckwheat, couscous, oatmeal, broken noodles sound like. It's almost like… music. (p. 44)

And music is something that we like, don’t we? Just not instead of the whir of an engine, our poor head may not be able to endure something like that. And that is something I would prefer to avoid ...

Editor in chief

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