The automotive industry is on the brink of a seismic evolution. With the advent of driverless cars, electric vehicles, and screenless user interfaces, how will automotive brand sound become the indispensable glue between brand, product, and experience?

When Carl Benz began the first commercial production of combustion engines in 1886, I doubt he was concerned about the fact that his groundbreaking automotive innovation didn’t quite sound like the clip-clop of horse hooves. The paradigm shift currently going on in the automotive industry provides no less of an opportunity for an auditory revolution.

From the sound of electric engines to conduction speakers that turn your rear window into a subwoofer and sound activated interfaces, the automotive industry is on course for a radical, sonic overhaul. In amongst all this change, there are more opportunities than ever for brand expression. Yet, is the automotive industry ready for it?

In a bill signed by the Obama administration, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration originally stated that all electric and hybrid vehicles traveling at low speed (under 18.6 miles per hour) would need to emit sound by September 2019. The safety implication of this is clear, but recent lobbying from a large group of car manufacturers has successfully stalled this law from coming into effect until September 2020. Interestingly, this lobbying has prompted the NHTSA to go one step further and relax their stance on whether electric vehicles (EV’s) need to sound the same.

Leading digital product design studio ustwo carried out research on the subject of the future sound of EV’s in 2017. Their conclusions were that there are essentially three main factors to consider:

First and foremost the safety of the pedestrian. Particularly relevant for the visually impaired, people wearing headphones or those glued to their smartphones, completely silent, low-speed EVs pose a real threat of injury to pedestrians.

Secondly, future sensor technology may well allow EVs to be smart about how, where, and when they choose to emit sound. For example, warning sounds make sense in built-up urban areas at lunchtime, but maybe not so much at 4am when most people are sound asleep. Sensor technology will have the potential to be adaptive to the environment, in turn reducing noise pollution.

Thirdly, we come to brand expression. Yes, there may be the opportunity for new iconic, EV engine sounds of the future, but how different these sounds will be from each other will be decided by safety factors and the NHTSA. One thing for certain is that the amount of lobbying going on means that car makers are pushing for maximum flexibility. Would Aston Martin want its future electric models sounding exactly like a Prius? Probably not.

If this flexibility is allowed, the opportunity for sonic brand expression will come in tandem. Exactly what these new engine sounds will be is the potentially billion dollar question. To be able to identify a brand at distance, without any visual aid, via something as pervasive as an engine sound, has huge implications for brand recall. When treated as a collective part of the brand sound world, elements of this new engine sound could also be threaded into audio for digital content, car interior sounds, and even events and advertising. There is the opportunity to close the loop between product sound and marketing communications like never before.

You see this product-to-marketing trend happening now with brands from other sectors. The sounds of the Skype app are also used to bumper their digital content. Visa recently spent a year developing their contactless notification sound which also stars in their recent TV commercial with Airbnb. Even Apple have made their smartwatch ringtone a centerpiece of a dramatic TV spot. Brands are starting to think more holistically about the sound worlds they are creating, right through from product to marketing, in turn maximising recall and engagement opportunities by joining the dots between the different points of customer experience.

Moving into the interior of the car of the near future, we have the rapid advance of gestural and voice-activated interfaces. In a screenless era, the discipline of earconography becomes more important. These are short, simple, aesthetically pleasing sounds that inform the driver if an action has been completed, a device is connected or if something needs your attention. Again, these should be designed with the minimum level of intrusion and the maximum level of safety, but this comes with the opportunity for a new breed of sounds to feel very much part of the future automotive brand’s collective sound world.

A recent six-month journey with a leading luxury car client gave us an insight into just how siloed the different departments still are when it comes to thinking about sound. We were called in after the engineers asked for a brand sound from the marketing department, only to find out they didn’t have anything ready. The result was a missed opportunity whilst the production deadline passed, and with it went the possibility of new forms of brand building.

Automotive brands thinking sonically across departments will be well placed to leverage the unique opportunities of the sound of the future.

Image source: Artur Aldyrkhanov