GM engineer’s quest to give every new electric vehicle its own unique sound

General Motors engineer Jay Kapadia spends long hours in a lab in the heart of the automaker’s Milford Proving Grounds studying a vehicle’s design – from the body to the wheels to the seat fabric.

He then takes everything he sees, combines it with data from GM’s marketing studies, and heads to a sound studio that seems to belong more in Hollywood than in Michigan. There, he sets about using everything from 5,000-year-old wind instruments to space recordings to find a sound that will serve as the “voice of the car.”

His work is crucial because rules imposed by Congress and finalized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in recent years require automakers to add sounds to hybrids and quiet electric vehicles traveling at speeds up to about 20 mph to warn pedestrians, cyclists and the blind. that they are there. But Kapadia also sees an opportunity for the automaker.

“Electric vehicles being quiet, we have this great opportunity to create brand identity with sound,” Kapadia, creative sound director for GM, told the Free Press. “Each brand will have its own unique sound in which the customer will know it is that brand and establish an emotional connection with the vehicle.”

You will know it with your eyes closed

A classically trained musician, Kapadia, 38, was born in Mumbai, India. His birth name is Jigar Kapadia, but his name is Jay for short.

His parents are of Indian royalty, part of the Rajput clan, who hail from the city of Gujarat, just north of Mumbai on India’s west coast, he said. He said his great-grandfather was king until British occupation in the mid-1800s stripped him of the title. People in his hometown still consider Kapadia a prince when he visits, he said.

In a profile Free Press did on Kapadia two years ago, Kapadia opened up about his trip to the United States, landing in New York at age 22 and working in the recording industry with stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé and Shakira.

Sound engineer Jigar Kapadia tests sounds on new vehicles like the 2021 Cadillac Escalade in the anechoic chamber at General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan.  on Saturday February 21, 2020.

GM hired him in 2016 to work on vehicle speakers and amplifiers. But his boss saw Kapadia’s potential for more and soon he was creating various car sounds, such as seatbelt alerts or turn signals, for Cadillac vehicles.

This summer, Kapadia, who holds an engineering degree, was promoted to his current role, creating the Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVAS) for GM’s electric vehicles. The title is new, but Kapadia has been working with other noise and vibration engineers on the AVAS since 2017. The idea of ​​giving the sounds a brand identity, as well as adding alerts such as an alert seatbelt warning and a blind zone alert, are all his.

The idea of ​​using sound as branding is fine as long as it’s part of a bigger picture, said Ayalla Ruvio, an associate professor of marketing at Michigan State University who specializes in consumer behavior. Ruvio, who teaches an executive MBA course, said most automakers don’t just score with sound.

“Cadillac leather has a very unique smell,” Ruvio said. “He thinks very deliberately about all the elements that make this brand unique in the eyes of the consumer. Will a specific sound make you buy a car? Probably not. But an assortment of unique features creating a very distinct brand identity will make you buy a car Probably because you are buying a brand identity.

General Motors EV Sound Development Engineer Jay Kapadia Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, at the General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan.

Kapadia soon returns to the lab. This time, he’s looking for that next unique sound to be the voice of the 2024 GMC Sierra EV pickup, which the GM EV will reveal later this year and is expected to go to market in 18 to 24 months.

So far, its completed AVAS can be heard on the 2023 Cadillac Lyriq and the 2022 GMC Hummer EV and SUV. There are two exterior speakers on the cars: one in the front and one in the back so that people hear the sound wherever they are. Kapadia said the jingle he came up with will be unmistakable.

“As soon as you have a Hummer passing by you, even with your eyes closed, you’ll know it’s a Hummer,” Kapadia said. “As soon as you have a Lyriq in your car, you’ll know it’s a Lyriq.”

Help on outer space and ancient history

Kapadia is restricted in its creativity by NHTSA, which requires sounds to have a certain minimum level of decibels within a defined frequency band.

“It gets a bit technical,” Kapadia said. “But I can’t just put a nice hip-hop or Hollywood or musical, classic sound on it. We want to make sure the sound is nice, but alerting, not annoying.”

The pitch of the sound changes with the speed of the vehicle so that it conveys an accelerating motion when the car is accelerating and a decelerating sound when the car is stopping.

For the Lyriq, Kapadia first had to establish the “Cadillac sound profile”, he said.

The Cadillac LYRIQ is rated in the bedroom of its General Motors EV Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, at the General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan.

“What is Cadillac? We looked at the values ​​of the brand and the heart of it is passion,” Kapadia said. “The way passion resonates is bold, sophisticated and optimistic. Bold is something original. Something organic yet futuristic.”

Kapadia and his team decided to use the adidgeridoo, a wind instrument from Australia. Kapadia describes it as “a 5,000 year old healing instrument”. It produces low-frequency notes, giving a sophisticated Cadillac-appropriate sound, he said, adding, “We want it to be subtle and elegant, which is why I used the didgeridoo.”

The sound was based on major chords, which convey feelings of sweetness and positivity, while minor chords are more “melancholic and gothic”, he said.

“We used major chords in the perfect fifth octave,” Kapadia said. “It’s because of the planetary sounds. Some NASA activity was recorded, like the sound of the sun, and I analyzed that sound and it sounded like it was in the perfect fifth octave. There was a lot of layers in Cadillac to give that nice brand emotion. When you drive the vehicle, it’s the first sound you’ll hear outside of the vehicle. I call it the voice of the car.

Distortion to give voice to Hummer

For the Hummer, he thought high frequencies were more appropriate because that sound conveys power.

“Some distortions have been applied,” Kapadia said. “I used the synthesizer more to develop the sound to convey the power and boldness of the vehicle. It’s totally and radically different” from the sound of the Lyriq.

2022 GMC Hummer EV Edition 1 electric pickup.

The process of getting the right sounds for Lyriq and Hummer was a long one. Kapadia said he created a bank of 200 sounds. He brought in GM executives and other company stakeholders to hear them out and he eventually whittled it down to six sounds. Then GM held two clinics with 120 people, asking them to rate the sounds.

“We got the top two sounds that were passed to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute for safety effectiveness,” Kapadia said. “How far can these sounds be heard and what are the safest sounds we could use? »

Kapadia said his team is now almost ready to start creating sounds for each of the brand’s upcoming electric vehicles, but he said for each of them: “I have to start over, totally start over.”

This means that Cadillac EVs will sound different from Chevrolet EVs, etc. The only exception is with GMC: Hummer is getting its own unique sound distinct from the rest of the electric vehicles GMC will offer. The same is true for the Corvette.

He recently completed AVAS for Buick, which will bring an electric SUV to market in 2024. He defined Buick as a brand that “values ​​sculptural beauty,” so the sound is “kind of its sanctuary.”

“First, I establish the sound profile of the brand itself,” Kapadia said. “This takes lots of time.”

He said he is studying the brand’s wheels, the design of the vehicle, the fabric used in the vehicle, and the car’s interior and exterior lighting. He starts by creating the AVAS for the exterior sound, but also adds “fun” interior sounds to the cars.

Besides Buick, Kapadia recently completed a sound for GM subsidiary BrightDrop’s electric commercial delivery trucks, which are due out soon.

“It took us 100 years to get a lot of the sound and noise out of vehicles,” Kapadia said. “Now with Quiet EVs, we’re adding some nice frequencies to create that sonic soundscape and give an immersive feel to customers.”

After:Powerful engine revs will go quiet as electric cars hit the road: ‘I’m going to miss the sound’

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Learn more about General Motors and sign up for our automotive newsletter.

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