Cars with Fake Engine Sounds: Is the Vroom a Sham?

Are you missing the Vroom Vroom?

Since the invention of the automobile, the aim has been to reduce engine noise, for example with mufflers. Today the research is all for the opposite effect. Car makers want to boost the engine noise.

It turns out, car buyers want cars with engines that make noise. A car enthusiast or a true gear–head (a slang term for someone who is very into cars and who likes to tinker under the hood) can gauge the performance of his car by the sound of the engine. The newer fuel-efficient cars—electric cars or hybrids—are virtually noiseless.

A car that runs silently or emits barely a purr is disconcerting, so car makers are putting the roar back into cars by simulating the engine sounds. It is like lip-syncing, only for cars instead of singers. Engine noises give a sense of power and sexiness to the car—attributes which many drivers feel are magically transferred to them because they own and drive the car.

It turns out that drivers want all the benefits of new engine technology such as better fuel efficiencycars, but they still want the excitement of their old gas-guzzler.

How is the vroom produced?

Stomp on the gas pedal of your new Ford Mustang or your Toyota Prius and you hear the familiar roar, but it is a sham. The sound isn’t coming from the engine. It is coming from the speaker system or the special noise-boosting mechanisms that are designed to amplify the engine’s sound.

There are a variety of mechanisms by which different car manufacturers give the driver his vroom back. In some cases, the sound-generation system is simply a recording that is synced with the gas pedal; in others, actual engine noises are amplified.

Volkswagen uses a “Soundakator” in cars like the GTI, GLI, and Beetle Turbo. It looks like a hockey puck and it plays engine sounds. It plays sound from an audio file that is triggered by the car’s actual engine performance.

The Sounds of the Soundakator

Porsche has a “Sound Symposer” for its GTS car series. It consists of a tube housing a diaphragm and a valve to amplify the mechanical sounds made while the car is being driven.

Lexus went to Yamaha’s Center for Advanced Sound Technologies to give drivers the full experience of the LFA’s V-10 engines. They treated the engine as a sound generator and played the “music” back into the car’s cabin. They call their system “Advanced Sound Control.”

The BMW F5 records the car noises from outside of the car and amplifies them for playback through the car’s stereo system. It’s like a back-up track. It samples the exterior noise based upon engine load and rpm enabling the driver to “drive by ear.” BMW calls their system “Active Sound Design.”

With the best systems, the vroom is synchronized to the car’s actual performance. The fake noises should mimic the sounds that an engine naturally makes in the same circumstances.

Is the enhanced vroom something new?

Enhanced engine sounds aren’t entirely new.

Popular Mechanics reported in 2012 that many automobiles included noise-amplifying components, the forerunners of the more sophisticated systems being used in today’s cars.

The Corvette had a system of valves that opened under full throttle, bypassing the muffler.

The Ford Mustang had “noise pipes” that linked the vehicles intake system with the cabin.

Is faked vroom cheating?

When a musician lip-syncs, you think you are hearing him performing the song live, but what you are actually hearing is a playback of a pre-recorded rendition of the song. When the deception is exposed, the audience feels cheated. (Remember the Milli Vanilli scandal back in 1990—the band was stripped of their Grammy when it was discovered that they were lip-syncing to someone else’s vocals.

For a while, the practice of enhancing the sound of a car’s engine was the auto-industry’s “dirty-little secret.” Car-makers have been reluctant to talk about how they are electronically souping-up the sound of the engines because, for many, the sound of an engine revving is part of the driving experience. If the driver knows the sound is a sham, he might feel deceived or tricked.

Some people feel that it doesn’t matter if the engine sounds are fake. If the driver doesn’t know the difference, he is still getting the same experience. He can enjoy the sound of thundering horse-power while at the same time getting the benefits of a better engine.

Others feel that car-makers should not be lying to their customers. They are purists. If you want the sexy rumble of a V-8 engine, then you should have the real thing—even if you have to have higher gas costs and live with the knowledge that you are polluting the planet. It is about being authentic.

I don’t buy that argument. Maybe I don’t care about enhancing a car’s sexiness by amping up the sound because I’m a woman. I enhance my sexiness all the time with cosmetics, push-up bras, and perfume. And there is nothing wrong with that!

Besides the fake Vroom is important for safety.

How is the vroom important for safety?

Adding a roar to an engine that purrs is not all about catering to vanity, ego, and nostalgia. Adding engine noise is done for safety.

Other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians need to be able to hear a car approaching and need to be able to discern from what direction the vehicle is coming. This is particularly important to the blind who might otherwise step off the curb into the path of a car.

The U.S. government is working on finalizing rules that will require all hybrid and electric cars to play fake engine sounds. In Europe, the European Parliament passed legislation that mandates the use of “Acoustic Vehicle Alerting Systems” for all new hybrid and electric vehicles.

It is estimated that this could prevent thousands of fatalities on the roads. So like it or not, if you buy a hybrid or all electric car, you will have to put up with the fake engine sounds.

Are there any other benefits to sham vroom?

Some automakers are trying to sell sham engine noises as a benefit instead of a deception.

They claim that a totally silent car could be unnerving to a driver used to the vroom. Additionally, the fake vroom masks unwanted road noise like coming from bumps in the road or the whoosh of the wind.

Additionally, those of us who drive like the proverbial “little old lady in tennis shoes” can now sound like dare-devil race car driver. Vroom. Vroom. Eat my dust.

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