SHHH! Electric Vehicles Too Quiet

Electric CarIt’s a rare complaint that a vehicle is too quiet. Normally we grumble as we hear sirens go by in the middle of the night, feel the pounding bass and blasting music of a teenage driver, and listen to that deafening screech from someone making a sharp turn. In most cases we would all agree a quieter car is a better car. However, with the increasing sales of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids, many are concerned that their silence is dangerous to pedestrians.

At first, I thought perhaps people should do the ole’ “look both ways” trick before walking in an area where a vehicle could be found driving. I can’t tell you how many people I see looking at their phones, digging through a purse, or just not paying attention when crossing a street. Yet the National Federation for the Blind argue for people with sight impairments, that simply being less preoccupied isn’t going to help; they need sound to assess their safety.

Congress attempted to tackle this issue in 2010 by directing the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make regulations requiring EVs and hybrids to have noise generating devices. The final rules were supposed to be enacted by January 2014, but delays have pushed the deadline to 2016, and many automakers say that may even be too soon.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers have both said they cannot completely comply with the regulations until 2018, because there is much ambiguity surrounding the new rules. Automakers can’t start developing alert sounds and noise producers until they know exactly what is required, and until then they will continue production as is. Once regulations are officially announced, they will have to retrofit premade vehicles, and then change the design of newer vehicles, costing automakers much more money to manufacture the cars.

According to automakers, the costs will be too much, the deadline is way too soon, and the regulations are superfluous to begin with, because pedestrians should take control of their safety. They believe many of the alert sounds will be louder than necessary, and there are other options for pedestrians, including those with impaired vision, to overcome this predicament. Some options include simply using a guide dog that can detect an oncoming vehicle, or a smart phone app that can notify pedestrians when an EV or hybrid is driving nearby. The rideshare company Uber has an app that allows users to know what types of vehicles are available in the area in order to secure a ride, so it’s possible to make a similar app so pedestrians know if an EV is approaching.

Several auto groups are pushing the NHTSA to postpone deadlines until September 1, 2018. Some hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, already have sound emitters that a driver can turn on and off. Still, there are ways to circumvent this issue, like looking both ways and equipping oneself with a guide. There are many other soundless vehicles on the road like bicycles and electric scooters that are successful in avoiding the pedestrians. With no set deadline and no solid regulations in place, it remains to be seen what will come of this issue.

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