Transport Theory

Are electric vehicles too quiet?

Posting in Energy

EVs may soon be required to emit noise alerts, warning pedestrians when they are nearby.

Who would've thought that a car could be too quiet?

It turns out that EVs, with their silent motors, may actually pose a safety risk, especially to visually-impaired pedestrians.

So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced last week that it will propose a rule that would require electric and hybrid vehicles to emit a sound to alert pedestrians when they are nearby.

"Even as we make giant leaps forward with hybrid and electric vehicles, we must remain laser focused on safety," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.  "With more and more quiet vehicles on the road, we have to consider their effect on pedestrians."

The proposal comes after a 2009 report found that hybrid vehicles were involved in pedestrian-related accidents at a higher rate than their gasoline-powered counterparts. A 2010 report also found that hybrid and electric vehicles could pose safety problems for visually impaired pedestrians.

If enacted, the regulation would require light-duty cars, motorcycles, vans and trucks to sound alerts automatically at low speeds.

Some automakers have already begun developing the sounds. While Nissan chose a "whoosh" sound for its Leaf EV model, Ford has decided to crowd source the decision for its electric Focus model. It posted four Youtube videos with potential sounds and asked viewers to comment. See the first one below:

Judging from the responses on Ford's Facebook page, the alert sounds have drawn mixed reviews from viewers (scroll down the page to see some of the reactions).

In asking the public for feedback, perhaps Ford is on to something. As automakers begin to develop a standard for what these alerts should sound like, why shouldn't we have some say in what our intersections will sound like ten years from now?

Photo: Ford

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Channtal Fleischfresser

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Channtal Fleischfresser has worked for The Economist, WNET/Channel 13, Al Jazeera English, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure