Brammo’s Enertia Sound Contest – The “Why” behind the “Wee!”

We’ve talked before about the upcoming contest proposed by Brammo.  I dissected a leak of a screen-shot that was posted by an intern for CP+B, the ad agency “won” by Brammo’s winning bid in an Ebay auction.  According to that screen shot, the contestants are to come up with a sound file that will play over the Enertia’s onboard speakers while it is traveling under 10 mph, as a “friendly heads-up” for the “world at large.”


Sounds like fun, right? Of course it does.  Who can keep from smiling as they submit the 50th variation of the sound of a playing card slapping against the spokes of a bicycle? Or maybe you’re scanning the web for the perfect rendering of the whirring of George Jetson’s flying car.  I can almost see the poor soul burdened with opening the 2000th sound file to discover, yet again, that someone has synthesized the resonant  sound of their own flatulence as the perfect “Enertia Wave.”  I know I have my sound files ready to go.  Don’t you?

Maybe a little background of why I think Brammo is planning this little stereophonic festival would be helpful for those aspiring THX sound engineers out there.

Why would the world need a “heads-up” at all?  Why only during sub-10 mph?

A. Electric motors are much quieter than internal combustion engines (I.C.E).  Think about your favorite electric golf cart, or your slot-car racers, or your electric train set (minus the Woo-Woo sound).  Ever get surprised by one of those electric shopping carts sneaking up behind you at your grocery store?  Although electric motorcycles make enough sound at higher speeds due to the tire-on-road noise and (at higher speeds yet) due to the increasing sound of the motor or other drive mechanism (chain or belt) to alert your average pedestrian of their approach, that sound is absent at low speeds.

Why would the Enertia need a heads up at low speeds? — I can see the bike just fine.

A. I’m sure you can.  It’s a pretty amazing looking machine.  A real head-turner.  But what if you’re in the parking lot of the grocery store, still a little shaken from getting goosed by granny in her electric shopping cart, and you’re done loading your groceries in your trunk and you grab the shopping cart to return it to the corral (you do return it, don’t you?) and you swing around and *BRAMMO!*

That’s right, I just said *BRAMMO!* because that’s the sound of the shopping cart colliding with the electric motorcycle that was silently cruising the lot, looking for a parking place.  If you’d heard it approaching, you would have waited for it to pass before charging across the aisle to ethically return your cart.  (You don’t usually return it, do you.  Savage.)

Why bother? I’ll just pay more attention.  I’ll look before returning my cart, or crossing the street, or whatever.

A. Because you might not look.  And because not every pedestrian is able to look.  Some of them might be visually impaired.  Blind people depend on their ability to hear an approaching vehicle.

Auditory looming.  It’s all about the brain’s ability to predict the arrival of an object by the sound it makes as it grows closer to you.  Motorcyclists often cite the maxim, “loud pipes save lives” as support for their argument that the sound of their vehicles, particularly that earth-pounding, eardrum rattling roar made by the larger machines, alert all living beings (and some dead ones) that they are in the vicinity.

Studies have shown, however, that in the context of the sub-10mph, parking lot scenario, all that is necessary is a reasonably-audible drone.  Kind of like the sound an I.C.E. makes at that speed.  (For more information on this, watch Professor Lawrence Rosenblum’s video on some of his experiments at the University of California – Riverside.)

Why don’t hybrids like the Prius have some kind of  sound broadcast from speakers when they are traveling at low speeds?

A. Good question.  The thing is, they might have to start doing that according to a law which is currently being considered by the U.S. House and Senate.  It is the “Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009” and will, if passed, likely require all E.V. manufacturers to install some sort of sound device to alert both blind and sighted pedestrians that a vehicle is approaching.

Not willing to wait for Congress to act, Brammo’s upcoming contest seems to be yet another visionary move to alert the world that the age of electric motorcycles is looming.


For more on this subject, see:

Unintended Consequences: How an Electric Car can kill you, Toronto Star, May 31, 2009.

And for lots of links and other information on the subject:

National Federation of the Blind; Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety/ Quiet Cars:


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