The Conway Column: Electric supercars – the sound and the fury

Can a pure-electric ever be a proper supercar? Isn’t the idea just wrong on so many levels?

By on July 7, 2011 2:58 PM

A truly great supercar is a sensual experience, from the way a precisely measured gearchange takes you from one redline scream to the next, from an exhaust note that makes the back of your neck prickle, from the way a great chassis talks you down the road.

No reason why an electric supercar can’t have a great chassis – in fact, the way battery packs can be packaged means an even more ideal weight distribution can be realised. Tesla, with its excellent Lotus Elise-based pure EV, has already proven that.

But what about the strangely satisfying pleasure of manipulating a mechanical gearbox, whether flappy-paddle or manual? Or the aural grand drama of a V12 shouting its all at redline? Isn’t that an essential part of the mix?

Creating an artificial engine note that responds to throttle openings and motor load is well within current capabilities.

Well, we know that Lotus is working on both: a ‘virtual’ gearbox for an electric drivetrain that will mimic the action of a conventional gearchange, and an evolution of its HALOsonic Electronic Sound Synthesis that can replicate the sound of a V6, a V12… or just about anything, really.

Audi for one is looking beyond conventional engine sounds for solutions. Their approach is refreshingly forward-thinking.

When cars came along at the turn of the last century, observers weren’t saying, “Um, can you make them sound a bit more like a horse?”

And now Audi is taking the view that their R8 e-tron pure electric supercar, on sale next year, doesn’t need to sound like a big V8 or V10 petrol engine. It can have a sound of its own.

Of course, safety is an issue – an electric car is comparatively silent up to about 15mph, where tyre noise and the car’s slipstream wake are similar in volume to what a petrol-engine car generates. And there is already legislation in countries like Japan and the U.S. that demand electric vehicles emit noise at low speed.

With a supercar, though, the noise it makes is absolutely integral to its character. Audi wants an engine note that projects just how futuristic the car is, and it has suggested that the noise made by the futuristic Audi RSQ in the movie ‘i, ROBOT’ could be the way forward.

“The sounds used for space ships in films are also reminiscent of car sounds, yet are also very different, making this a rather interesting approach,” said Dr. Ralf Kunkel, Head of Acoustics at Audi.

I think that’s a much better solution than pretending you’ve got a bloody great petrol burning mega-motor under the bonnet. After all, you’ve spent a ton of money on a pure-electric supercar so surely you’d want to advertise its ‘differentness.’

But perhaps the original electric supercar maker, Tesla, has got it right. They don’t rely on trick sound-synthesis to supply the soundtrack to their Roadsters phenomenal performance, just the other-worldly whine that comes naturally to its powertrain. And the shock of its performance.

Besides, would you not feel a bit of a fraud (or actually a bit ridiculous) having your faux V8 echoing around your electric supercar’s cabin?

So what should a proper electric sportscar sound like? All natural like the Tesla, simulated V8 or something futuristic as with Audi’s concept? Well, I fancy something like the sound clips on here.

And I’d really love to know what you think.

One final thing – supercar pure electrics aren’t just a minority interest. Having them around will help convince people that electrics are credible, and as with the R8 e-tron and Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS E-Cell, extremely desirable at the high end. They’re ‘halo’ cars.

But more importantly, as Audi UK’s David Ingram explains, what engineers learn in the process will inform their less ambitious offerings: “We were very conscious of the learning we have to do and working on something as complex as the e-tron helps that process enormously.”

About Gavin Conway

Gavin has been writing about cars and the industry for nearly 20 years. He started out on Autocar magazine as a road tester (where he currently holds the record for the most spontaneous car fires), then features editor and eventually deputy editor.

Satisfying his taste for classics, Gavin did a stint as editor of Classic & Sportscar. Freelancing followed, with Gavin writing for a wide range of motoring titles – he has been writing for The Sunday Times for over a decade now, even during his three-year posting as editor of Channel 4’s motoring site 4Car.

Gavin also took a year out to edit Automobile magazine in America before returning to the UK. And he believes 2011 is going to be the most fascinating moment for decades, with EVs being at the heart of the action.