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Impressed by a Big Truck’s Beefy Rev? It Could Be an Illusion

Fake engine noise is a reality for today’s more efficient trucks

It might sound like a gas guzzler inside, but that truck's purr could be pretend. (Paul Souders/WorldFoto, 6836 16th Ave NE, Sea/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

If you’re addicted to the sound of your truck’s distinctive, gassy growl, you might want to get your ears checked—it could be just an illusion.

In a report for the Washington Post, Drew Harwell pulls back the curtain on the secret car manufacturers don’t want you to know: they’ve been adding fake engine sounds not just to electric cars but to more classic vehicles, too, in order to create the experience of a gas-guzzling rev.

“Fake engine noise has become one of the auto industry’s dirty little secrets, with automakers from BMW to Volkswagen turning to a sound-boosting bag of tricks,” writes Harwell. “Without them, today’s more fuel-efficient engines would sound far quieter and, automakers worry, seemingly less powerful, potentially pushing buyers away.”

Drivers of hybrids and electric vehicles are familiar with the fake whine intended to make the driving experience analogous to that of a gas-powered vehicle. Fake engine noises also a safety measure, to protect pedestrians from too-quiet vehicles, and rules requiring energy-efficient cars to make noise are close to being finalized. But for trucks and muscle cars, the new wave of faux rumbles, grumbles and revs is more of an aesthetic choice: as the law has required trucks and sports cars to become ever more efficient, that change has trickled down into the tailpipe, creating quieter rides.

Though the auto industry is squeamish about discussing how it sweetens the sound of a truck’s engine, Harwell found plenty of fakes in the world of high-powered vehicles, from the Ford Mustang and F-150 to vehicles made by Porsche, Volkswagen, Lexus and BMW. Each manufacturer pipes in the engine's grumblel in a slightly different way, from enhancing the car’s existing noise to special speakers under the driver’s seat.

What do these “enhanced aural experiences” have in common? They’re all fake, and they’re all designed to keep drivers happy with their new ride. Maybe car manufacturers are more spooked by the specter of the driverless car than they’ll admit—and they’ll do anything to keep drivers in their sound-sweetened seats.

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