We here at Road & Track dig the growly, flat-six-esque sound of a three-cylinder engine, but apparently, it causes some confusion for drivers. Instead of watching the tachometer, Ford found that drivers tend to judge shift points by ear, which in two and three-cylinder engines leads to folks shifting at much higher RPMs than necessary. To combat this, Ford has come up with a clever way to coax drivers into shifting sooner—by playing a sneaky trick on their ears.
uncovered a recent patent by Ford which uses the car's sound system to make a two- or three-cylinder engine sound more like a six or an eight. It works by playing a quick, quiet tone in between each cylinder firing, to make the car sound like it's got more pistons under the hood. This, Ford says, has the subconscious effect of leading drivers to shift at lower RPMs, rather than winding out those tiny motors to their upper rev ranges. The patent was applied for in January 2014, and was granted to Ford earlier this month.
It has to be said that this is currently just a patent, so it's unclear whether the technology will make its way into a car you can buy. Additionally, as Autoblog points out, it applies more to European-market cars, where two- and three-cylinder engines are more common, as are manual transmissions.
Of course, Ford's current 1.0-liter three-cylinder EcoBoost is the sort of engine you'll probably redline regularly—no matter how much turbo magic is going on, it's still a tiny engine moving a sturyd modern car. That said, even when driven aggressively, it's still quite fuel efficient.
It's an interesting potential solution, for sure—one that probes the psychology at play when we're behind the wheel. Do drivers rev tiny engines higher out of a conscious effort to extract the most performance? Does a bigger-sounding engine cause us to subconsciously shift sooner out of concern for all those extra moving parts? If your 1.0-liter hatchback sounded like it had a 7.3-liter truck engine under the hood, would you lug along at 1000 RPM everywhere, even if it meant abysmal acceleration? The folks at Ford's research arm seem intent on finding out.