When silence brings noise

Traffic on Bridge High Street. Will a new era of silent motors bring quiet to our rural villages and countryside, or a plethora of strange noises? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

Why does the lion roar?
So the horse knows it should be afraid.”

Arabian proverb

Despite the romance of their nostalgic image, the old coal-powered steam engines on railways and farms were dirty, poisonous, roaring monsters; internal combustion engines are noisy contaminators too, giving reason why both have been loathed by those who have to live with the constant din, by environmentalists who abhor their pollution, and by nature lovers and holidaymakers trying to take refuge from the aggressive rush and growl of travelling machines.

Steam engines are now obsolete but for a few museum remnants, and the internal combustion engine is fast becoming so. The electric motor has been reborn and its rise will be exponential in the next few decades. It is cleaner, uses fuel more efficiently, and produces very little noise. More and more vehicles will be fitted with electric motors from now on. While trains and cars approach with raucous sound, and even the old stage coach would announce itself with a clatter of hooves and a post horn fanfare, the purr of the modern electric motor is as quiet as a cat’s. But therein lies another, less obvious concern: how will we hear fast traffic approaching? How will we know when to be afraid?

To counter this issue, manufacturers are creating a library of simulated ‘esounds’ for their electric vehicles so that pedestrians, cyclists and other road users will be more aware of their approach. We have seen the introduction of these manufactured sounds already in the blaring alarms which play when trucks and buses are reversing, the entirely unnecessary electronic bleeps of remote central locking systems, and the recently introduced designer engine noises on sports cars, which can be turned on with the flick of a switch by those who want to show off with a more throaty noise. Ironically, it seems most electric vehicle manufacturers are currently giving their silent motors the simulated sounds of a petrol engine, but in future you may be able to give your vehicle a whole range of custom sounds to suit your mood. If, as some predict, we all soon find ourselves no longer owning cars, but hiring driverless cars as and when we need them, who will then select the noises they make, the adverts they play?

At first hearing, silent electric motors sound like progress, but if the rumble and roar of internal combustion engines across our landscape is to be replaced by a plethora of different quirky buzzes, whirrings, sirens and tunes, each individually selected by car manufacturers and drivers at their own whim, are we soon to expect a whole new cacophony of discordant noise pollution on our streets and in our tranquil countryside?

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