Friday, March 14, 2008

Fisker Karma PHEV to Feature Synthetic Engine Sounds

By Chris Haak


The Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid-electric sedan that is expected to sell for about $80,000 starting in late 2009 will have an interesting solution to the potential pedestrian safety hazard that silent electric vehicle operation introduces. Company founder Henrik Fisker told Forbes Autos in an interview that the Karma will have several strategically-placed speakers both inside and outside the vehicle to simulate the sound of a "regular" vehicle. Actually, Mr. Fisker said one option the driver will have is to have a sound that is "like something between a Formula One car and a jet plane," so that's not quite a "regular" vehicle.

This is an interesting approach to the problem, and one that I've seen discussed before. Active noise canceling systems can already be found in many mainstream vehicles (such as, for example, some Honda V6 engines with variable cylinder management) that detect and cancel undesirable noises. In the Honda case, it's particularly important when the Odyssey, for example, is operating in 3- or 4-cylinder mode rather than V6 mode. This begs the question, then, of whether drivers in other vehicles will someday be able to choose not only the soundtrack for background music, but also the soundtrack of their powertrain. This could get particularly important in coming years if V8s become more scarce; it is already possible to have a V6 as powerful as many V8s, and someday soon it may be possible for that V6 to make the same sounds as a V8 as well. The inevitable downsizing of the engine lineups for sale in the US over the next 10-15 years may make the idea of artificially enhancing the auditory experience an important piece of consumers accepting smaller - and sometimes less smooth and less pleasant-sounding - engines in their vehicles.

Fisker hasn't revealed a lot of details about how the system will work in the Karma (which couples a powerful electric motor with a four cylinder internal combustion engine, and is said to be capable of a 0-60 sprint in less than six seconds), but in a premium car like the Karma, I'd hope that more than one "soundtrack" is provided. A few of my favorites, which I'd choose different days depending on my mood and other circumstances, might be:

  • completely silent operation
  • a 1967 Corvette with the 427/435 horsepower V8 and side exhaust
  • Honda J30 3.0 liter V6 (I love the sound of this engine, though I may be partial)
  • jet powered dragster
The other issue is, the experience of driving a conventional car is not all about the acceleration and the sounds; vibrations (both internally generated from the drivetrain and externally sourced from the road surface) play a large part in how the driver connects to the car. To that end, I'd suggest that Fisker also consider some sort of vibration system. I know it's possible, since I just drove a 2008 BMW 535xi with a lane departure warning system that vibrates the steering wheel to warn the driver of a "lane violation." Adding that dimension to the Karma, if done well, could cause owners to forget that they're driving something with such an unconventional drivetrain, at least until they get 50 miles per gallon from a stylish, fast car.

I might be interested in driving a vehicle with a "synthetic" V8 if it had something else under the hood and similar performance to a "real" V8 with better fuel economy. I'm not sure what other sounds I'd want to have added to my car's soundtrack, as long as they were realistic. Manufacturers might even sell downloadable sounds, similar to the way cell phone companies sell ring tones.

No comments: