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Combustion engines have dominated sound design in the automotive sector right from the start. But they are no longer relevant in an age of e-mobility. Car interiors have become spaces of calm that call for design.

UX designer Indra-Lena Kögler stands with her eyes closed in the presentation hall of the Volkswagen Design Center.

There it is again. The question of what the engine should sound like. Indra-Lena Kögler replies with a searching look as she tries to make sure her answer is understood. It is of utmost importance for the discussion that will follow. “The word ‘engine’ puts us squarely in the combustion world,” says the UX designer. “I would prefer to talk about the sound a drive system makes.” Her colleague Valentina Wilhelm chimes in: “We’re not trying to imitate what an engine sounds like. Instead, we’re trying to convey the character of an electric car.”

The combustion engine has determined the sound and dominated the design of cars for more than a century. “But now, in the age of e-mobility, it will cease to exist. That opens up a new type of freedom, which we want to explore,” explained Klaus Bischoff, Executive Director of Volkswagen Design, at a recent event. It gives his designers a completely new field of activity. Two of them, Indra-Lena Kögler and Valentina Wilhelm, are pursuing this newly acquired freedom with models like the I.D. – the first purely electric Volkswagen developed and operated on the Modular Electric Toolkit (MEB). 

Sound as acoustic identity

Designers Indra-Lena Kögler (left) and Valentina Wilhelm (right) talk about the role of sound in everyday life.

“We don’t have any mechanical restrictions, and can give each car its own sound,” says 31-year-old Valentina Wilhelm, as if emphasizing again that she and her colleague are not two sound engineers talking about combustion engines but rather two UX designers discussing acoustics in the electric age. The sound that a drive system makes is obviously a key part of a car’s overall presentation. As with a combustion engine, the acoustics of an electric motor also convey propulsion, dynamism, power and speed.

Klaus Bischoff has clearly stated his requirements for drive system acoustics: he wants people to recognize a Volkswagen by the sound it makes when it drives by – even if their eyes are closed. “Everyone on the road should immediately think, wow, that can only be an electric car. And their second thought should be, wow, that’s a VW,” he says.

“Everyone on the road should immediately think, wow, that can only be an electric car. And their second thought should be, wow, that’s a VW.”

Klaus Bischoff Executive Director of Volkswagen Design

Sounds made by Volkswagen

Design and technology have always played a special role in Wolfsburg. That responsibility is now even greater with electric cars. Yes, soon the combustion engine will no longer be a car’s core component. But with everyone focused on the idea and promise of autonomous driving, it’s easy to overlook many of the developments that are already taking place.
The answer to the question about the role of sound in the electric age is found in a city that has more registered cars than inhabitants. The round smokestacks stretching 125 meters up into the sky above Wolfsburg are the landmark not only of Volkswagen’s main plant but also of the youngest major city in the state of Lower Saxony. Whereas most of the company’s production halls are beehives of activity, the heart of its Design Center is the very essence of calm where the sound of birdsong can even be heard.

Light designer Valentina Wilhelm stands with eyes closed at an 18-meter presentation wall and takes in a sense of calm.

The windowless room, which features an impressive lighting system and mirrors along one of its walls, is called “Walhalla.” Here is where new cars are presented to the Board. An 18-meter-long wall serves as a projection screen for presentations such as the one designers Indra-Lena Kögler and Valentina Wilhelm are holding today. The birdsong on the sound system is meant to create the impression of natural surroundings.

Artificial acoustics are required

Cars have to make noise. That is not a matter of taste, but of law. As of July 2019, all newly developed electric cars in the European Union are required to have an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS). Two years after that, no electric or hybrid car will be allowed to leave a factory without an AVAS. Cars have to emit artificial sound up to speeds of 20 km/h. Above that, the tires moving against the road generate sufficient noise.
Carmakers are permitted to determine the actual sound, but the EU has issued guidelines. As with combustion engines, the sound of an electric car has to reflect what the vehicle is doing. A sample tone can be found on the website of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Beethoven’s 9th symphony, in other words, is taboo.

Indra-Lena Kögler talking about the responsibility of ensuring drivers remain relaxed while negotiating traffic.

“The regulations don’t just apply to the exterior sound,” says Kögler, a media and communications designer who has been with Volkswagen for 18 years. Her job is to create an agreeable acoustic environment in car interiors so that drivers remain relaxed while negotiating traffic and are not constantly subject to outside noise. “Sounds are acoustic design lines for us,” she says. “Light and sound complement each other,” adds light designer Valentina Wilhelm. “Both are important parts of a multi-sensory experience.” 

“Light and sound complement each other. Both are important parts of a multi-sensory experience.”

Valentina Wilhelm Light designer

Listening with all one’s senses

Kögler points to a picture on the presentation wall of a man lying with closed eyes in what appears to be a moving car. “Cars in the electric age are very quiet,” she notes. “And quiet surroundings make it easier for every tone to have an effect.” This sentence, which sounds so simple because of the opportunities it seems to offer, actually represents a major challenge. Because the relaxing atmosphere inside the car that is portrayed by the image can only arise if all the noise that the combustion engine used to drown out is also eliminated. 

Indra-Lena Kögler (right) and Valentina Wilhelm (left) explain the role of calm for their work.

The sounds of driving that are muffled by conventional engines at higher rpms are much more obvious in cars with electric drives, and convey a different sense of speed. Insulation and other materials therefore play a more important role. A calm acoustic backdrop, according to Kögler, is what enables individual sounds to come into their own. “Calm is like an arena, and sound design is like a freestyle presentation,” she adds. Silence, however, can also be unpleasant. “We don’t want silence,” she says. “What we’re after is calm.” 

“Calm is like an arena, and sound design is like a freestyle presentation. We don’t want silence. What we’re after is calm.”

Indra-Lena Kögler UX designer

Noise and sound affect trust

When drivers turn on their blinkers in quiet electric cars, they hear them more clearly. And that sound is therefore more important for the UX designers as well. The mechanics is the playing field for analogue sound design, because it, too, conveys how high-quality something is. “Sounds have to meet expectations and reflect what people associate with them,” says Wilhelm.
“A blinker, for example, is comparable to tapping someone you’d like to talk to,” says Kögler. You can destroy a lot of trust if it doesn’t sound right, and instill a lot if it sounds good. “We look at how the pitman arm is configured on the steering wheel and how it interacts with the blinker. As far as we’re concerned, material that makes a lot of noise is not acceptable.” The two designers place a priority on saturated sound. Ultimately what they want are associations of quality.

For their work to produce consistent results, the team seeks to convey the values behind the Volkswagen design, such as agreeableness, sensuality, or innovation. To achieve agreeableness, for example, sounds are based on the intonation of the human voice.

Brand values and specified tonalities are major factors in the work of Indra-Lena Kögler (right) and Valentina Wilhelm (left).

The designers have an overall aim in their work, namely to create a sense of friendship between electric cars and their users. “A friend is someone with whom you communicate well,” notes Kögler. That includes the ability to be quiet together, because you each know how the other is doing. You might break the silence and start talking if you want to remind or warn them of something. That’s also what it’s like with an electric car. “It doesn’t chatter at you all the time, and only offers assistance when needed,” she says. And after this sentence silence prevails, not calm.

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