As electric vehicles continue to make up a larger share of the automotive marketplace, auto brands, governments, and consumers have identified one aspect noticeably absent from these vehicles — sound.
BMW has long been at the forefront of automotive innovation. Since 2009, acoustic engineers from the BMW Group have been working on artificially-generated sound for electric vehicles. They aimed to satisfy increased legal and safety regulations but still lacked that audible connection back to drivers who have grown accustomed to the sounds of their automobiles.
Renzo Vitale, BMW Group Sound Designer says, “Sound is not only information, but also emotion and an essential part of the driving experience for many BMW customers.”
To reinvigorate the experience between driver and electric vehicle, BMW created the revolutionary BMW IconicSounds Electric initiative; a visionary sound offer created to underline the emotional aspect of future electrified vehicles. BMW Sound Designer Renzo Vitale had already started to develop new sound concepts and there was no better partner for this project than the Grammy and Academy Award-winning composer, Hans Zimmer.
Zimmer says of the initiative, “Sound defines personality. It adds emotion and depth to a character. Right now, we’re at a really exciting point – shaping the sound of the future.”
The pioneering partnership aims to create harmony between the driver and the electric vehicle. “Sound has always played an important role in the emotionalization of our vehicles. Now we are taking the joy of sheer driving pleasure to a new level and are particularly pleased to be working with Hans Zimmer to create the new sound world of electric mobility at BMW,” says Jens Thiemer, Senior Vice President, BMW Brand. The IconicSounds Electric program is a statement for the driver – and so is its sound.
“When the driver interacts with the accelerator pedal it is not only a mechanical touchpoint but also a performative element,” said Zimmer.
The IconicSounds Electric program debuted the partnership through the sound of the Vision M NEXT vehicle at its world premiere at #NEXTGen in Munich. The development and composition for the sound of the Vision M NEXT was mainly inspired by light installations from prominent visual artists James Turrell and Ólafur Elíasson. The idea behind the Vision M NEXT is to recreate this sense of wonder through sound. While there were countless press talking points throughout the event, the press was keenly drawn to the IconicSounds Electric elements specifically. The initiative sparked online conversation and positive feedback from the automotive industry and its fans, as well as media outlets across the globe. Features about Zimmer, Vitale, and IconicSounds Electric were written in multiple languages all over the world. The Vision M NEXT and its groundbreaking audio were major talking points throughout #NEXTGen, helping to drive the initiative forward with increased anticipation. ABC News acknowledged there was “much fanfare” surrounding the launch.
The second major vehicle integration was the all-electric BMW Concept i4. Driving or riding in the BMW Concept i4 is a multi-sensory experience, including a soundscape exclusive to BMW that brings a new ambiance to the world of electric vehicles – all while generating zero local emissions. “We have an extraordinary opportunity to turn electric driving in a BMW into a very special experience with the help of great sounds,” says Zimmer. The Concept i4 was slated to debut at the Geneva Motorshow in early 2020. However, after the show’s sudden cancellation due to public health concerns, BMW pivoted to a much-anticipated online debut. The sound topic was an exciting highlight of the live press conference debut. The majority of the press coverage of the Concept i4 featured the sound of the vehicle and BMW’s partnership with Hans Zimmer. WIRED Magazine chose to do an entire feature on Zimmer, Vitale, and the Concept i4 sound.
While the Vision M Next and Concept i4 are not on the road yet, BMW owners will soon be able to experience the joy of IconicSounds Electric in their own vehicles. The ready-to-drive sound – developed by Hans Zimmer and Renzo Vitale – for all-electric BMW models and plug-in hybrids will be introduced as a standard feature worldwide in July 2020. “The new start/stop sound is intended to instil a sense of excitement at the prospect of electric driving when the customer gets into their vehicle and begins the journey,” says Vitale.
The groundbreaking IconicSounds Electric initiative doesn’t just focus on vehicle sounds; it focuses on innovation within sound. One of the highlights of CES 2020 was the BMW i Interaction EASE concept which offered a glimpse into the future featuring a soundscape which was developed with Hans Zimmer. Not only is the cabin meant to give passengers the feeling of having already arrived at their destination while still en route, it underscores the potential of intuitive, almost human-like interaction between passenger and vehicle. The challenge was to use sound to turn the EASE moment into an authentic and emotional experience.
The sound of the BMW i Interaction EASE demonstrates the breadth of the partnership between Hans Zimmer and BMW IconicSounds Electric. Zimmer was also featured in the BMW Welt’s Future Forum exhibit, which gave visitors a glimpse at the cities of tomorrow. Munich’s BMW Welt, or BMW World, is the top tourist destination in Munich. The exhibit brought visionaries together to demonstrate what our future world could look and sound like. Zimmer was enlisted to envision audible characteristics of future cities, which will likely be drastically different than today. A similar experience traveled to several major auto shows around the world.
Zimmer and Vitale composed each of the sounds from Zimmer’s world-famous studios in Los Angeles and London. Zimmer then joined BMW at the Welt for the announcement of IconicSounds Electric and the launch of the Vision M Next in mid-2019.
On the eve of the Los Angeles Auto Show’s opening (and of the announcement of Zimmer’s latest Grammy nomination), Zimmer and BMW Group hosted dozens of media outlets in a set of intimate fireside discussions from his studio in Los Angeles. They also unveiled the initial results of the collaboration and announced the long-term partnership. Attendees were granted the rare opportunity to meet Zimmer and get a behind-the-scenes tour of his office and studios.
This campaign continues to tremendously impact the automotive world. The initiative has spearheaded an industry-wide movement for electric vehicle sounds. IconicSounds Electric first launched the conversation and has continued to push the envelope in EV sound integration. The New York Times writes, “The German carmaker isn’t alone in seeking ways to fill in the sonic voids that are inherent in electric cars. Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have assigned development teams to work toward similar ends for their electrics, as have Jaguar, Nissan, General Motors and others.”
The Times was quick to point out one key element that sets BMW apart from the others, writing, “BMW is alone in hiring a composer with Mr. Zimmer’s repertoire, and this work is a labor of love for the German-born musician.”
The initiative has garnered hundreds-of-millions of earned media impressions, social media viral content, and was even featured on CNN’s Brand Studio on innovation. Elements of the campaign have gone viral with thanks to automotive influencers like Supercar Blondie with videos featuring the vehicles, and content from Zimmer himself.
“Over the years, the sound of our vehicles has enthused and accompanied millions of people. We are very excited about the exceptional chance of creating the sounds for BMW’s electric mobility together with Hans Zimmer. Thereby we can charge future emotions of our customers worldwide and redefine sheer driving pleasure,” said Stefan Ponikva, VP Brand Experience.
The partnership has only just begun, with many exciting developments to come, bringing an emotional connection to the electric driving experience and promoting a sustainable future.
Hans Zimmer has spent a lifetime creating legendary scores with orchestras all over the world. As he puts it, “BMW was so kind to give me another orchestra to play with — called the car.”
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