Where we live in Southern California, the Prius is the It Car. So many people own one! Popular, yes, but it also has turned into a status symbol: owning a Prius means that you are able to afford one, that you care about the environment, and that you are alternative enough to say no to a luxury brand and yes to a Toyota. Even if you don’t believe in any of those things and are just driving one out of hype or peer pressure, you still are A Prius Owner. Did you not see that episode of South Park?
There is one thing to say about the Prius and most electric cars: they are so quiet! If you’ve never heard one of these cars, that’s because there is nothing to hear. They have a very low, unmistakeable hum—but they are anything from automotive. The absence of a sound leaves something to be desired and also leaves room for trouble. How is it possible to avoid a car if you can’t hear it? How will a lack of car noises affect the sound of cities? Is there a way to rethink the sound of cars?
That is what Sonic Movement is: it is an effort to think about the sound design of cars since they will eventually go silent.
The project debuted online in late Summer of 2013. It comes from engineering firm Semcon who have been working on making cars more efficient. Designer James Brooks and Creative Director Fernando Ocaña teamed up with musician Holly Herndon and artist/technologist Mat Dryhurst think about this problem: with the noisy mechanics a car needs gone, what can we put in its place? The question is a very futuristic, intellectual problem that relates to simple things like the aesthetics of sound but also—as Dryhurst wisely points out—responsiveness, which “allows the car to respond to the city around it.”
Instead of placing arbitrary noises onto these silent cars, Herndon and Dryhurst thought about ways to make cars harmonize and work together to not only make something beautiful but functional. They worked with Sound Designer Peter Mohlin to pinpoint sounds in a three dimensional way, providing “noises” for when a car goes faster or slower, turns or is idle. “In a way, we’ve transformed the steering wheel into a kind of musical controller,” Herndon says, noting that each movement sparks a specific sonic reaction.
The project is important on many levels. Implementing it is an invaluable communication device between pedestrians and vehicles to help anticipate where a car is going, thus preventing accidents. The group also thought about multiple cars and how the sounds working together will build a symphony, something that is absolutely nonexistent in the honks and clicks we hear from automobiles now. Sonic Movement is a brilliant design study that could change how we interact with cars. As they say, “the age of the electronic vehicle deserves its own sound.” There isn’t a better way to put that. You can watch a video about the project below.