Is your car’s engine noise a lie?

by on January 22, 2015 at 1:48 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Stomp on the gas in a new Ford Mustang or F-150 and you’ll hear a meaty, throaty rumble — the same style roar that Americans have associated with auto power and performance for decades.

It’s a sham. The engine growl in some of America’s best-selling cars and trucks is actually a finely tuned bit of lip-syncing, boosted through special pipes or digitally faked altogether…

Fake engine noise has become one of the auto industry’s dirty little secrets, with automakers from BMW to Volkswagen turning to a sound-boosting bag of tricks. Without them, today’s more fuel-efficient engines would sound far quieter and, automakers worry, seemingly less powerful, potentially pushing buyers away.

There is more here, from Drew Harwell.

1 So Much for Subtlety January 22, 2015 at 2:30 am

Why is this a surprise? It is well known that Harley Davidson does this to make their bikes sound hard core.

You can even buy things that run of your car’s speakers to make it sound bigger.

If it is what customers want.

2 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 3:12 am

A change from set standards to a points system that takes noise into account could stop these kinds of shenanigans. Or even just one country that imports these vehicles spitting the dummy could have a large positive effect.

3 Adrian Ratnapala January 22, 2015 at 5:45 am

Both wrong.

SMfS: We can certainly cringe if this is in fact the what the market wants. Freedom means people are allowed bad taste, not that it doesn’t exist.

RB: But given that the market demands bad taste, why bother regulating it?

4 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 6:15 am

Externalities, my dear Adrian, externalities. Bob may enjoy a noisy engine, but Flo, Jo, Tommo, and Fridoon don’t. I suppose the most efficient way to handle this would be to auction off the rights to noise pollute, provided there was transparency and transaction costs were low. But without any checks there might just be a noise arms race as people purchase progressively noiser vehicles to try to be heard over the cacophony.

5 chuck martel January 22, 2015 at 6:31 am

According to current economic thinking, anything that’s disagreeable to others is an externality worthy of some kind of transfer. Failure to mow one’s lawn creates the externality of lowering the value of homes down the block. If noisy car engines (or arriving and departing jets) are externalities that require compensation or regulation, how about crowd noise at football games? Aren’t the neighbor’s leaves that have blown over onto my yard an externality that makes him responsible for removing them or paying me to do so?

6 matt2 January 22, 2015 at 6:33 am

Good grief. The engine sound plays INSIDE the car, not outside. The other way they modify the sound is with a tube from the engine compartment into the passenger cabin.

7 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 7:02 am

Matt2, if the noise is mostly inside the cabin then that’s much less of a problem for everyone else. I assumed they were like Harely Davidson motor bicycles and designed to for everyone to hear.

8 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 7:09 am

Chuck, we soon run into problems of transparency and transaction costs. As a result it can in practice just be much simpler to just regulate or give up. Learn to appreciate those leaves on your lawn. I mean that white stuff is going to come soon and kill your lawn anyway, isn’t it? What’s it called? Salt? Snalt? Snow? That’s it, snow.

9 chuck martel January 22, 2015 at 5:34 pm

If you live in the big city you get to deal with externalities like gunshots, sirens, jet planes, garbage trucks, and other cacophony of all sizes and shapes. If those externalities are a problem you might want to move somewhere else, maybe northern Saskatchewan. It’s real quiet up there.

10 jay January 24, 2015 at 7:46 am

No, it does not seem that’s what the market wants. Hence manufacturers are taking steps hiding these ‘features’.

There is a big difference between variable attenuators (which a few vehicles have used) and full synthetic sound (basically like a child’s toi truck).

11 Willitts January 22, 2015 at 9:30 pm

On motorcycles they serve a practical purposes of keeping you alive although I haven’t altered the tuning of my hog.

12 William O. B'Livion January 24, 2015 at 11:28 am

Sorry mate, “loud pipes save lives” is baloney and we’ve known it since the 1980s (Hurt Study).

Most deadly (motorcycle) crashes involve a vehicle from about 45 degrees in *front* of the motorcycle[1], while most of the sound of your loud pipes goes back at about the same angle, driving those around you to distraction and pissing them off, as well as damaging your hearing even further.

And yeah, I’ll cop to leaving the louder “competition only” pipe on my Triumph when I bought it, but (a) I left it there, I didn’t buy it, and (b) it’s not nearly as loud as a stock Harley.

13 Steve Sailer January 22, 2015 at 2:43 am

There should be a law that devices that needlessly boost the loudness of a new car’s engine have to turn themselves off permanently a month after purchase. That’s reasonable — your thrill of having a new car with an intimidating engine wears off pretty fast, while your neighbors annoyance at your loud engine stays constant.

14 Alan January 22, 2015 at 4:10 am

The whispering menace of socialism has spoken.

15 Cellsatwork January 22, 2015 at 4:21 am

*belly laugh* Bet you steve hasn’t been accused of that in a long time!

16 Zephyrus January 22, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Aside from Steve’s pet issues, he’s never struck me as super right wing, actually. Socialist/leftist, obviously not, of course. But his intellectual independence probably leads him to some answers that make Republicans/conservatives uncomfortable.

17 William O. B'Livion January 24, 2015 at 11:33 am

There should be a law that anyone suggesting a law that solves a problem *that is already covered by a law* get a finger, or toe if they’re a slow learner, chopped off.

There are already laws on the books concerning sound volumes from vehicles, both engine/exhaust noise and others.

How come I’m required to have a muffler on my motorcycle, but not allowed to have one on my rifle?

18 Salem January 22, 2015 at 4:15 am

In the movie “The Dilemma,” the two main characters run a firm which adds muscular noises to quiet cars, and it’s not presented as anything remarkable. If this knowledge made its way into mainstream Hollywood movies several years ago, these guys have some nerve presenting it as a secret today.

19 Mitch Berkson January 22, 2015 at 8:51 am

Well there seems to be news to some blogger who just noticed that toilet paper is getting narrower and the tube bigger although that’s been going on for years.

20 Komori January 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

There was a sci-fi story in the 50’s called “The Marching Morons” that includes car with the engine noise feature. They go a step further, though, and include extra wind noise to make the driver think they’re going faster than they really are.

21 ChrisA January 23, 2015 at 12:38 am

I had the same thought – The book has a premise similar to the Idocracy movie, where the world is being overrun by morons due to under-breeding by high IQ people. Sort of like this comment section recently.

22 dearieme January 22, 2015 at 4:50 am

Tax it!

23 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 4:55 am

I just walked to the supermarket here in Australia. On the way I saw an old car pulled over to the side of the road with a police vehicle behind it. There was a young man whose stance was apologetic and a police officer who was radiating, “You’re reasonable so I’m being reasonable, but I’m still writing this ticket.” I wondered what the driver had been done for. When he drove past me a few minutes later I realized it was because he had a worn out muffler. Now that’s policing I can support. Yes! Tax dollars successfully expended!

Then when I was walking home from the supermarket the same vehicle roared up the street past me and startled an old man. The old man put two fingers to his head to indicate that he thought the driver should be shot. So glad we have gun control. I just shrugged and we both went on pur way, basking in the fellowship of being part of the non-verbal community.

Then I met a group of Americans and gave them directions to the pub. But I didn’t ask them where they were from in the US or why they were here. That would have been too forward of me. I’d only just met them. But if I had to guess, I would say they were from that place called Mid-East. That’s where people wear trousers with checkered shirts, right?

24 jb January 22, 2015 at 7:10 am

I think you’re thinking “Midwest”, not “Mid East”, which is not something we say.

Lots of people wear checkered shirts these days. In the Midwest, Northeast, Pacific Northwest, sometimes even Texas. If they were young, they might have even been hipsters from New York.

BTW, just as a single anecdote – while asking me (as an American) why I was in Australia would have been a little forward, asking which part of America I am from is not forward at all.

25 Ann K January 22, 2015 at 8:51 am

Thank you for not inquiring. If they were from Texas, they would have told you, and if not, well, there’s no reason to embarrass them.

26 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 10:31 am

Right, Midwest. Thanks for that. And no, they weren’t young. Well, one was, but he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and so looked just like an Australian.

27 Slocum January 22, 2015 at 7:37 am

“But if I had to guess, I would say they were from that place called Mid-East. That’s where people wear trousers with checkered shirts, right?”

It sounds more like you may have encountered that hipster sub-species known as a ‘lumbersexuals’. If the trend has already spread to the UK, can Australia really be that far behind?

28 Adrian Ratnapala January 22, 2015 at 8:21 am

They’re called Bevans, and it’s not a trend, it’s just the way we are.

29 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 10:33 am

Yes, it certainly feels as though we’ve been lumbered with sexuals forever.

30 Adrian Ratnapala January 22, 2015 at 11:21 am

We are all lumbered with sexuals? Or just the Bevans?

31 William O. B'Livion January 24, 2015 at 11:39 am

“The old man put two fingers to his head to indicate that he thought the driver should be shot. So glad we have gun control.”

So you’re asserting that Australians are so bereft of morals *and* self control that they’d kill someone over a worn out muffler, rather than just beating the stuffing out of them?

Well, I guess you know your fellow countrymen better than I–I only spent 2 years in Alice, where I guess the Americans there rubbed off on the Australians, because they didn’t seem all that bad. A little drunker maybe, but they were pretty decent blokes.

32 Ronald Brak January 26, 2015 at 2:27 am

Yes, William, that’s exactly what I am asserting. There are no morals or self control down here. The other day I was feeling hungry while I was sitting on a bus so I just leant over and bit a chunk out of person sitting next to me.

33 Adrian Ratnapala January 22, 2015 at 5:50 am

This is good Randian bate:

[… we expect rules] requiring all hybrid and electric cars to play fake engine sounds to alert passersby, a change that experts estimate could prevent thousands of pedestrian and cyclist injuries.

Unnamed experts, making unspecified estimates about what “could” happen.

34 albatross January 22, 2015 at 9:48 am

My question is, how do you turn it off if you’d rather hear your radio or your wife than artificial engine sounds?

35 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 10:49 am

Electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf already come with a speaker that generates noise to alert pedestrians when it is moving at low speeds. (At higher speeds the tyres on the road surface make enough noise to render it unnecessary.) The operation of the noise maker has not been uniform across countries because of local laws. In one country the fact that it could be temporarily turned off was deemed a problem and in later versions where it couldn’t be turned off it wasn’t suitable for the UK because being able to turn it off was a requirement there.

36 Adrian Ratnapala January 22, 2015 at 11:23 am

As R.B. says, its an external speaker which need not make much noise, or any at all inside the car. Assuming the unnamed experts are right, and there is some genuine need for this, it makes no sense to be able to turn it off.

37 William O. B'Livion January 24, 2015 at 11:41 am

There have been one or two accidents make it to the news where a person with visual impairment has been hit because they didn’t hear the car.

38 Mark Thorson January 22, 2015 at 11:30 am

I’d prefer the jingling of sleigh bells. Real sleigh bells, not some synthetic sound from a speaker.

39 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 11:49 am

My suggestion to just have the speaker yell, “Get out of the way!” wasn’t well received. My other suggestion for the Japanese Leaf was to have it say, “Sumimasen!” while a mechanical arm with a vertical palm attached to the front of the car waved up and down in the Japanese gesture for “please let me through” went down better. However, it didn’t test well overseas as people thought the car was attempting to karate chop them to death.

40 Mark Thorson January 22, 2015 at 2:52 pm

With a Brooklyn accent “Hey, I’m drivin’ heah!”.

41 Patrick Stuart January 22, 2015 at 9:13 am

Do drivers have the option of turning OFF the electronically-added engine noise? What if I value hearing every note of the music on the stereo rather than the fake roar of a V-8?

42 Lord Action January 22, 2015 at 9:35 am

On some cars, you can vary the nature of the sound by switching between different profiles. You can make it louder or quieter, or even sound like a different kind of engine.

Contrary to the OP, the cause is not directly greater efficiency, it’s turbos. Turbos muffle the exhaust by sticking a turbine in the path. Turbos, while great at US and European economy testing, tend to hurt real-world mileage and CO2 numbers. US and European tests simulate the driving patterns on an 83-year old woman on painkillers – effectively staying off the boost. Nobody really drives that way.

43 efp January 22, 2015 at 11:45 am

My Golf R used the windshield as a speaker, which is widely known. A little googling shows you how to disable it, but there’s not an official “option” to do it.

44 J1 January 22, 2015 at 10:55 am

Dirty little secret? Are there really people who didn’t know this?

45 Ronald Brak January 22, 2015 at 11:42 am

Being aware of the huge amount of effort car engineers have put into reducing noise both in the cabin and externally using the minimum amount of insulation and other extra weight, I’d never really thought about people delibrately undoing all that good work. Yes, I was aware that there were people who like big brumm brumm noises, but I just sort of assumed that those people catered to their own needs by driving huge old cars, putting speed holes in the bonnet, and driving around with a worn out muffler. In fact I… I find it kind of creepy that engineers are increasing vehicle noise as noise is a clear sign of inefficiency in a system and delibrately aiming for it, well, it just gives me the willies.

Mind you, I’m in Australia and our hive like mentality probably oppresses those free minded individuals who seek louder than usual vehicles. (Our calling them Bevans is just one sign of this, well deserved, oppression.)

46 albatross January 22, 2015 at 2:30 pm

This makes me think of that scene in _A Fire Upon the Deep_ where a character on the bridge of a starship smells something burning (after the ship has been damaged), and realizes that this is just another warning indicator.

47 J1 January 23, 2015 at 9:00 am

Your remarks assume engineers are making cars noisier. Based on my personal experience owning a run of the mill station wagon (oops – I mean “crossover SUV”) and a reasonably high end sport sedan, I’d say my sport sedan sounds different, not louder. The station wagon makes plenty of noise when you hit the gas.

48 William O. B'Livion January 24, 2015 at 11:44 am

I thought you called them Hoons?

49 Ronald Brak January 26, 2015 at 2:28 am

No, we ate all the hoons. See my answer to you above.

50 Mako January 22, 2015 at 1:42 pm

I like the sound that my Chevy SS makes (a Holden Commodore in disguise). I like to think it is more real than fake, but likely the sound is very carefully tuned for maximum effect.

51 Thor January 22, 2015 at 3:47 pm

I know it is a First World Problem, but the noise of Harleys drive me and my neighbours nuts.

52 Hadur January 22, 2015 at 3:53 pm

If movies like Star Wars are to be believed, this is only the beginning. When we have spaceships that operate in the silent vacuum of outer space, they will have devices on them that make it appear that they make airplane-like noises during dogfights, so that the pilots hear a rewarding noise while making maneuvers.

53 Albigensian January 22, 2015 at 5:33 pm

If this gets competitive cars will simulate the shriek of jet engines, and seats will be equipped with hydraulics to simulate that “shoved in the back” feel of hard acceleration, plus the illusion of pulling G’s when cornering.

But it’s not new: C.M. Kornbluth foresaw it in “The Marching Morons,” published in 1951.

54 Albigensian January 22, 2015 at 5:35 pm

… “A gale roared past Barlow’s head, though the windows seemed to be closed; the impression of speed was terrific. He located the speedometer on the dashboard and saw it climb past 90, 100, 150, 200”

55 Willitts January 22, 2015 at 9:31 pm

I read somewhere, probably here, that ATMs have fake noises to keep customers calm while waiting for their money.

56 Dan Hanson January 23, 2015 at 10:34 am

Why all the sneering about morons and the rest? Is it so inconceivable that the sound of a sports car is part of the entire aesthetic package, and that people can just like that sound without having to be dupes or morons? And if it’s the natural engine sound being piped into the cabin to make it louder, it actually has the benefit of giving you audible feedback as to what your engine is doing.

Many drivers can use the tone of the engine to plan shifts without staring at the tachometer.

BTW, other things your car is lying to you about:

– Steering feel. Many cars now use electrically-assisted steering, and some have special circuitry to provide feedback, like a force-feedback steering wheel for gaming. You’re not feeling the road – you’re feeling what the computer thinks the road should feel like based on its sensors.

– Road feel. Some cars have magnetohydrodynamic shock absorbers that can have their stiffness altered by computer, computers that use the ABS system to apply brakes to individual wheels, and/or all-wheel drive systems that can apply power to any individual wheel. The combination of all this can make the car feel just about any way the engineers want it to feel.

– Throttle response. You may think your foot directly controls the throttle in your car, but in many cars the gas pedal is just one input into a computer that looks at many variables and decides how much throttle to actually apply.

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