The Washington Post

Can it be a Harley without the vroom vroom?

Harley Davidson has generated a lot of excitement with its new electronic motorcycle prototype, the LiveWire. But what's going to happen to that distinct Harley sound? The company has clearly thought about this and insists that LiveWire will have a noise all its own.

“The sound is a distinct part of the thrill,” said Mark Hans-Richer, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the firm. “Think fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. Project LiveWire’s unique sound was designed to differentiate it from internal combustion and other electric motorcycles on the market.”

Sound design -- electronic vehicle makers of all stripes have had to contend with it. While these gas-free motors may be  better for the environment, they come with their own problems -- one of which is that, for some, driving a silent vehicle isn't all that fun.

Even typical automakers have run into this issue. As sports car manufacturers have focused on making cabins quieter and engines more efficient, they've found that they're losing the distinctive roar of the engines, said Andrew Poliak, director for automotive business development at QNX, which works with car manufacturers to make their cars noisier. After all, what's the fun of buying a sports car if you don't hear that swell of noisy power when you rev the engine?

So, Harley may want to pull a leaf from the auto manufacturers' playbook. When children pretend they're riding motorcycles, after all, the noise they make definitely isn't the high-pitched scream of a fighter jet engine, no matter how impressive. It's a full-throated growl.

In cars, manufacturers augment engine noise either by amplifying what's already coming out of the car or, in some cases, making their own soundtracks for engine noise. BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen -- to name a few -- have all been pretty up front about using this technology in some of their sports car models. Poliak wouldn't say which manufacturers QNX works with on engine sound, but he did say that the company has worked hard to craft particular soundtracks for individual brands' customers.

"We can customize it so, in a sports car, you get the 'vroom vroom' when you're going at lower speeds. People want to hear those gear transitions then," he said. "But when you're at a cruising speed, we can make the sound go away so that you're not hearing it really loud at a consistent RPM."

There's no reason, Poliak said, that one couldn't do the same for motorcycles or e-bikes. And, a motorcycle man himself, Poliak said he definitely thinks Harley could benefit from a little sound enhancement. "With Harley," he said, "the noisier, the better."

Vanity aside, there's also a very good reason why electric vehicles need to make an aural impact. The lack of engine noise can make vehicles more dangerous because pedestrians don't hear them approach. In fact, the European Union ruled in April that electric cars must have sound generators by 2019 so that pedestrians know when they're coming.

So, regardless of what you want to hear from a brand, chances are no vehicles will be allowed to run silent for long. "We predict that requirement will become pretty commonplace," Poliak said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.
Next Story
Brian Fung · June 20, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.