Are Electric Cars Too Quiet?

March 27th, 2013

If you've ever heard an electric vehicle (EV) while it was being operated, you'd know that they are quiet. Super quiet; in fact, they are totally silent. This is a selling feature for electric cars, but a moving vehicle that produces no sound can be fatal to pedestrians who are disabled or blind. They can also pose a risk to cyclists who aren’t aware of the vehicle’s presence. This has led to a federal ruling that states that EVs will have to make some kind of sound until they are being operated at 17 miles per hour. There has been no ruling as yet to dictate what those sounds have to be.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that the odds of an electric or hybrid car or truck being involved in a crash with a pedestrian as being 19 percent higher than a diesel or gas powered vehicle. For bicycle-car crashes, that number goes up to 38 percent.

The NHTSA's proposal would require the vehicle to make a sound detectable by the visually impaired, cyclists, and pedestrians. This means the sound would have to be audible over street noise, tire noise, and background noise when the car or truck is being operated at low speeds. While the automakers would have pretty free range when it comes to the type of sounds used for different makes and models, all cars or trucks of the same make and model would have to make the same set of sounds or sound.

The Auto Alliance filed public comments last week. They support the rule, in principle, but are worried about the cost of implementing the rule and also have issues with the possibility that consumers will be put off by annoying or noisy vehicles. Wade Newton, who spoke for the Auto Alliance, said “…no one wants a wild west of different ringtones.” Further, they want the ruling to change to say the sound should cut off at 12.4 miles per hour rather than the suggested 18.6, due to the fact that tire noise would make the car sound inaudible.

Other concerns include the proposed cost; the NHTSA says $30 to $35 per car, but the alliance suggests it will be way higher – up to five times more. In addition, the startup costs to the industry will run about $23 million just in the first year alone.

Possible sounds include a white noise machine that is mostly inaudible to people inside the vehicle, or various sounds similar to a gas engine.

The National Federation of the Blind supports the legislation; in fact, it helped shape it: “We feel strongly that the industry must take measures to insure the safety of blind and sighted pedestrians.”

The proposal will require a phasing-in of the required changes by September 2014. The automakers want to put that off to 2018 and scrap the phasing-in requirement.

Should electric cars sound like traditional cars?


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