Enjoy the Silence (While You Can): New U.S. Safety Rule Says Electric Cars Must Be Noisy

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The U.S. Transportation Department has finalized rules that will require electric vehicles and hybrids to emit “alert sounds” at speeds below 18.6 miles per hour, to warn cyclists, pedestrians, and the blind of the approaching danger.

By adding noise to silent-running vehicles, the NHTSA and DOT hope to reduce the number of people currently being run over by EVs. Is this a big problem, you ask? Apparently it is — the regulator claims EVs are 19 percent more likely to strike human flesh.

“This is a common-sense tool to help pedestrians — especially folks who are blind or have low vision — make their way safely,” said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind. “With pedestrian fatalities on the rise, it is vitally important we take every action to protect the most vulnerable road users.”

The NHTSA estimates the automotive industry will need to spend an additional $39 million annually to provide compliant external speakers. Eating most of that cost, of course, will be EV manufacturers like Tesla, and brands with popular hybrid models.

At moderate and high speeds, electric vehicles aren’t appreciably quieter than their gas-powered counterparts. However, danger crops up at low speeds, when engine noise is traditionally the loudest sound being emitted by the vehicle. The regulator says the move could prevent about 2,400 pedestrian casualties each year.

Manufacturers have until September 1, 2019 to equip all new hybrid and electric vehicles with sound-emitting devices that meet the federal safety standards. The rule will apply to all vehicles with four wheels and a gross vehicle weight of under 10,000 pounds. While that includes passenger vehicles, it would omit all but the most svelte city buses.

One would expect electric and hybrid buses to need this sort of technology most of all, since they are frequently the vehicles spending the most time around pedestrians and operating at low speeds.

While advocates for the visually impaired pressed for the rules and praised the announcement, automakers expressed consternation.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers stated that it was imperative that automakers be allowed to equip vehicles with devices that emitted sounds that are sufficiently detectable without being unpleasant to hear. The fear being that consumers would abandon alternatively fueled vehicles entirely if the interior noise was obnoxious.

Annoying or pleasant, this does open up some interesting possibilities for automotive audio. Will we see more EVs making futuristic wooshing noises or mimicking the sounds of the traditional internal combustion engine? Maybe we’ll even get a rotating, randomized playlist — one day could be a small-block V8, and the next might be a clattering jalopy.

Either way, automakers have until 2019 to figure it out. Big readers can download the NHTSA’s minimum sound requirement rules PDF here.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Daniel J Daniel J on Nov 16, 2016

    I jog 3 times a week in my neighborhood. Usually on the edge of the road, mainly because the sidewalks are so uneven. Even with new gas powered cars, I have a hard time hearing a cars goin 25 to 30 mph coming up behind me. I actually feel safer now that its dark when I run because I can see the lights of cars from far far enough behind me if I need to move out of the way.

    • Ktm Ktm on Nov 16, 2016

      .....then you are running on the wrong side of the road (coming from another runner). You face traffic when running.

  • PeriSoft PeriSoft on Nov 16, 2016

    "ba-RINNNG ding DING ding ding PA ding-dading-dading PA dingading DING dina RING RING ding PAP dading da-ding ding ring..."

  • V16 I'm sure you could copy and paste most of the "NO" responses to 1960's Japanese sourced vehicles.
  • Canam23 I believe the Chinese are entirely capable of building good cars, BYD has shown that they are very forward thinking and their battery technology is very good, BUT, I won't buy one because I don't believe in close to slave labor conditions, their animosity to the west, the lack of safety conditions for their workers and also the tremendous amount of pollution their factories produce. It's not an equal playing field and when I buy a car I want it made with as little pollution as possible in decent working conditions and paying a livable wage. I find it curious that people are taking swipes at the UAW in this thread because you can clearly see what horrific labor conditions exist in China, no union to protect them. I also don't own an iphone, I prefer my phones made where there aren't nets around to catch possible suicide jumpers. I am currently living in France, Citroen makes their top model in China, but you see very few. BYD has yet to make an impression here and the French government has recently imposed huge tariffs on Chinese autos. Currently the ones I see the most are the new MG's, mostly electric cars that remind me of early Korean cars, but they are progressing. In fact, the French buy very little Chinese goods, they are very protective of their industries.
  • Jerry Haan I have these same lights, and the light output, color, and coverage is amazing!Be aware, these lights interfere with AM and FM radio reception with the stereoreceiver I have in my garage. When the lights are on, I all the AM stations havelots of static, and there are only a couple of FM stations that are clear. When Iturn the lights off, all the radio stations work fine. I have tried magnetic cores on the power cords of the lights, that did not makeany change. The next thing I am going to try is mounting an antenna in my atticto get them away from the lights. I contacted the company for support, they never responded.
  • Lou_BC Are Hot Wheels cars made in China?
  • DS No for 2 reasons. 1-Every new car pipelines data back to the manufacturer; I don't like it with domestic, Japanese and Euro companies and won't put up with it going to Chinese companies that are part financed by their government. 2-People have already mentioned Vinfast, but there's also the case of Hyundai. Their cars were absolutely miserable for years before they learned enough about the US market