Sound in Motion

Designing a soundscape

As electric and hybrid vehicles have become more ubiquitous, I have noticed the sounds coming from them. Walking around our neighborhood grade school became a study of EVs and their drivers. As a safety feature car makers now add external speakers to play sounds that warn pedestrians and bicyclists that the quiet but fast cars are nearby. These sounds are called Acoustic Vehicle Alerting Systems (AVAS).

Illustration of a vehicle shown from above with waves of sounds around it

The need to add sound presents an interesting design opportunity for automotive design teams. What should a quiet car sound like? How does this sound impact the surrounding environment of sounds? The goal of this sound is to be loud and distinct enough to be noticed by humans outside the car as an alert, but not be unpleasant or annoying to the larger environment. Some brands have done a better job at this sound design than others. From my subjective observations, I have noticed that Toyota’s sound is annoyingly artificial sounding. It feels like a malfunctioning robot or an alien screech. I wish I knew what their designers were thinking. Tesla uses a sound that is less stressful but still very sci-fi feeling. In a huge contrast, the Rivian’s exterior sound is delightfully pleasant and natural feeling.

It turns out this was very intentional. Rivian’s design team put a lot of work into all the sounds of their vehicles and shared their approach in detail. Reading about their sound design process is fascinating.

Of all the sounds we created for our vehicles, the acoustic vehicle alert system, or AVAS, was one of the most debated and considered. We knew this would be something owners and non-owners alike would hear a lot — in grocery store parking lots, out on trails, campsites, and at busy city intersections. Erik G. - Principal UX Designer

We knew from the beginning we wanted to use nature as a source of inspiration for all the sounds we incorporated into the vehicles. If electric vehicles are the future of transportation, why not make them blend into the natural world they’re helping to preserve? Chris J. - Director of UX Special Projects

I hope other manufactures are inspired by this approach, because all of us will benefit from a calming sound environment in our cities and suburbs. We already have a busy soundscape with sirens and alarms everywhere, so this is an opportunity to promote calm tech and friendlier cities, instead of ratcheting up the audio annoyances around us.