By on November 15, 2016

Car noise hearing

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.

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71 Comments on “Enjoy the Silence (While You Can): New U.S. Safety Rule Says Electric Cars Must be Noisy...”


  • avatar
    Old Man Pants

    That background image is doing way bad things to my vestibular system.

    Re the noise requirement: Make all EVs play ice cream man music!

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Turn One (people who make Forza) has incredible engine sound effects. They should tap them to make these. Make my Tesla sound like a Ferrari!

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Why not mandate pedestrian detection systems instead? Many new cars will hit the brakes rather than hit a pedestrian.

    Seems a lot more effective than noise pollution. For one thing, it still works when pedestrians are wearing headphones.

    • 0 avatar
      Windy

      Or provide an app or separate gadget that can detect an approaching machine by a low power radio transmitter in every vehicle (it could be incorporated into the license plate), then a vibration in the phone, watch or gadget could let the pedestrian know from which depiction a threat was approaching by the type or pattern of the vibration coupled with the future detection systems it should do the job and help control noms pollution

      • 0 avatar
        heavy handle

        I don’t think that asking pedestrians to wear hardware and use apps is a good solution. Those things aren’t reliable, and you can’t expect everyone to carry a smart phone, or pay attention to one if they do (kids, elderly, pets, wildlife, joggers, drunks, etc).
        This is a problem that is already solved, at least in high-end cars. Pedestrian detection systems will only get cheaper and better, so why mandate a 19th-century solution (the modern equivalent of having someone ring a bell to warn of motorcars)?

  • avatar
    JimC2

    “the regulator claims EVs are 19 percent more likely to strike human flesh.”

    Yes, but they’re only hitting stupid people.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Or the other way around. It always amazes me how people treat a parking lot like a roadway. Distracted driving included.

      I had a coworker hit by a car from behind luckily flipping her up on the hood the dumped off.

      Definitely a place where common decency is ignored and tonnage rules.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        You see a hazard, I see opportunity. I practice defensive walking in parking lots. If I have to jump out of someone’s way because they’re going too fast, whatever I’m carrying will probably fly through the air and hit their car- mmmwuahahahahhaha!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      Loud pipes save lives. And with electric cars being able to break most speed limits within a handful of seconds, I wouldn’t mind having some sort of warning before getting splattered.

      • 0 avatar
        Click REPLY to reload page

        The last sound you hear before crossing over to the other side will be a synthetic Harley Davidson tailpipe roar, coming from a Nissan Leaf.

      • 0 avatar
        Felix Hoenikker

        Loud pipes save lives is a questionable mindset that noise junkies subscribe to in order to justify their noise addiction.
        Loud pipes also damage the hearing of the biker and the general public. I rode motorcycles for 13 years and really hated loud pipes Per hearing tests taken since, my hearing is as good as it ever was thanks to my natural aversion to loud noises. Can’t say that for my Harley driving friends.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      “’the regulator claims EVs are 19 percent more likely to strike human flesh.’

      Yes, but they’re only hitting stupid people.”

      Perhaps EV drivers are 19% more self-absorbed than IC drivers.

  • avatar

    It’s not clear what sort of noises the Feds are proposing requiring. But the best sort of noise to use is the sound of a normal engine on a car going at low speed. Anything else might actually confuse pedestrians and cyclists. Plus, beepers, such as the backup beepers required on trucks, are very hard for people to localize, resulting in a number of deaths from being run over by trucks backing up every year. See my article below (the last section addresses EVs)

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3018517/

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    It seems to me that Nissan Leafs already have this.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Allegedly they do, but when I had my 12 Leaf, neither I nor nearby pedestrians could hear it in a parking lot. I had to drive extra slowly to avoid scaring people, but that still happened.

      On the other hand, it had a very annoying truck-like backup alarm (beep-beep-beep-beep) that was active as long as the car was in reverse, even if it was stopped. This likely notified my neighbors every time I arrived home late at night.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      Mine definitely has the audible warning. The biggest problem is that I often park in a basement parking garage that has ventilation fans that seem to make the exact same sound. No problem, I just assume pedestrians in the garage don’t know I’m there. It’s entertaining when they look up from their cell phone and realize there’s a car in close proximity.

    • 0 avatar
      revjasper

      My Spark EV has the noisemaker, you can hear it turn on when you shift into R and D/L. It’s just annoying enough that when I’ve got a headache, I’ll shift into neutral when I’m at a stop light. I’d like to be able to change the noise, as the high pitched thing doesn’t do much to warn anyone. But from memory, he only time I’ve ever had pedestrians take heed of any vehicle by the noise it makes was a Grand Marquis with Flowmasters.

  • avatar
    alexndr333

    Why can’t the manufacturers offer some options here? I want my Bolt EV to play Chevy small block V-8 burble when it’s rolling slowly down the lane. How hard can that be?

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      Hmmm, a Raspberry Pi talking to a bluetooth OBDII device along with an amplifier and speaker should do the trick. You might be able to find an outdoor speaker with enough room in the cabinet to mount the Pi, especially if you use a Pi Zero. Just alter the sound according to the RPM and maybe simulate some shift points. It would be fun to cruise through a cars ‘n coffee event with something like that.

      An easier way might be to mount an outdoor bluetooth speaker under the hood and write a cell phone app to read the OBDII reader and play the sound out over the speaker.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      Why limit it to motor sounds? I’m thinking a recording of Mr T saying “Look out, fool” as my EV rolls along.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    It’s actually a good rule in my opinion, I’ve been in a situation like that where a hybrid is zipping around in a parking lot or backing up and it’s dead silent. An older person that doesn’t hear as well could easily be in danger.

    The devil is in the details on how its implemented, but of all the dumb safety regulations, I see this one saving a few pedestrians.

    • 0 avatar
      NickS

      parking lots are not places to be zipping around in for any vehicle, let alone one with torque-y electric motors. Unfortunately, I know all too well what you mean though.

      I am all for saving pedestrians.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    A new market for backup “ringtones”.

    While there is a lot of merit in relying on pedestrian detection systems to handle this hazard, that approach does nothing to notify pedestrians of the ev’s presence.

    With my hybrid in ev mode I’ve had to follow pedestrians who walked along the middle of a lane ahead of me, unaware of my presence. Since they were older I didn’t want to startle them by using the horn.

  • avatar
    NickS

    I appreciate quiet in every context, so I find this idea rather stupid.

    Let’s create noise to increase safety? I’d rather we mandated monitoring the driver for inattention, and having some pedestrian detection system on board.

    What problem is this solving? It can’t be primarily for the blind person — their hearing is MUCH better and can probably discern from half a block away if it’s a Leaf or an i3.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      The report states its (calculated) belief that the added noise of these alerts will be offset by the proliferation and subsequent lower noise emitted by hybrids and EVs.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    The sound of wheels rolling over concrete is loud enough for me, to make cars “louder” would go against decades of noise reduction and engineering.

    Cant tell you how many times I’ve driven old, loud cars and yet people still slowly walk in front of you on a 4-lane street. A few times I’ve even had to swerve since jogging is an endangered act apparently.

  • avatar
    Spike_in_Brisbane

    Stupid. And probably driven by lobbyists from GM and Ford. If there were genuine concern then every car would have reversing alarms but the manufacturers rail against this. People, especially small children are always getting backed over in driveways. There were two on the news this morning.

  • avatar
    Hoon Goon

    Ahhhh, the never ending government crusade to protect idiots from themselves. Does anyone really believe that whole “if it just saves one life, it’s worth it” tripe anymore? We NEED some Darwinin’ badly.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Not “one life”, 2400 pedestrian casualties. That’s not worth preventing?

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        Most of them will just off themselves in some other dumb way instead. Believe it. Meantime, hybrid and EV buyers will have to pay more money for “pay attention to your surroundings” alarms and all the rest of us have to pay for things like TPMS.

      • 0 avatar
        NickS

        @Russy – it’s worth it, but let’s admit that it’s not a given that these noises will indeed prevent all of those 2400 casualties.

        What if the noise/beep is drowned out in windy parking lot, or the driver is going too fast anyway, or the pedestrian is distracted, or the driver had deactivated it, or the pedestrians find themselves surrounded by 4-5 cars all beeping at the same time? I am thinking of the typical Costco parking lot, or downtown area.

        • 0 avatar
          Russycle

          Agreed, won’t prevent all of them, but if it’s only half, that’s still a lot of people. Don’t get me wrong, one of my greatest peeves is morons who step off a curb right in front of my bike without so much as a glance down the street.

          I hope they get a clue some day, but I’d rather not be the one to teach them that painful lesson.

          • 0 avatar
            DrSandman

            > “Not “one life”, 2400 pedestrian casualties. That’s not worth preventing?”

            It’s just prolonging the inevitable — they’ll Darwin themselves some other way. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      I feel there’s a slight difference between dieing from stupidity and being silently assassinated. And there is a difference between being prepared and being paranoid.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      When it comes to stupidity, Darwin was an optimist.

  • avatar
    don1967

    I’ve seen the professors, eco-warriors and ScanGauge-watching technology geeks who drive EVs. Not sure noise will fix this problem.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    Driving the company Volt, I discovered it had a button on the end of the turnstalk that would “tootle” the horn. Not a full honk, but enough to remind somebody that you were there. Problem is now that so many pedestrians walk around know with their Beats on that they wouldn’t even hear a Freightliner coming up behind them.

    • 0 avatar
      Old Man Pants

      This. Plus don’t forget old people. “Stop mumbling!”

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Last time I was in NYC, I saw a [email protected] with headphones and a hoodie come within an honest to Dog half step of getting splattered by a transit bus. I yelled, he kept right on walking. If the bus had been about 1mph slower he would have been dead. If he had been any taller he would have been nailed by the busses mirror too.

      I want my future electric car to sound like George Jetson’s space car, all the time. Which would be infinitely better than the golfcart whine they sound like now.

    • 0 avatar
      Jagboi

      There have been a number of people walking along train tracks (mistake #1), wearing headphones(mistake #2) who have been hit and killed by trains.

      If you can’t hear a freight train blowing it’s horn how will beeping cars help those engrossed in their ipod/iphone and have completely lost situational awareness?

    • 0 avatar
      Carlson Fan

      “Driving the company Volt, I discovered it had a button on the end of the turnstalk that would “tootle” the horn. Not a full honk, but enough to remind somebody that you were there. ”

      That’s the Volt’s pedestrian horn. Use it all the time, probably too much, but it’s such a happy sound!

      • 0 avatar
        shaker

        “That’s the Volt’s pedestrian horn. Use it all the time, probably too much, but it’s such a happy sound!”

        It’s still loud enough to piss people off if you sneak up on them (with their faces buried in their phones) and use it up close – I wish it had a lower duty cycle setting.

        If aftermarket solutions become available, I’ll certainly consider one, as paying perfect attention is not achievable by drivers or pedestrians.

  • avatar
    BigOldChryslers

    I would want mine to play the Dead Collector skit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    -Irony at its finest- The idea of getting ran over by a hybrid while walking across Whole Foods’ parking lot and smoking a Marlboro Red. while clever little cars, they are eerily quiet. No, none of the other patrons will say anything about my cigarette. Trust me on that one. Funny faces and stink-eye looks? Yes. Verbal confrontation? No.

  • avatar
    brn

    If this gets implemented, it needs a temporary override.

    I’m looking at the freeway right now. It’s full of slow moving cars. The last thing rush hour congestion needs is a variety of additional sounds added to it. I’m pretty sure further annoying a bunch of frustrated drivers is a bad idea.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      A smart solution would be a white noise generator that would simulate the sound that a 4cyl ICE makes already, and would respond to throttle position as well (to warn of acceleration). If a range of weird sounds are allowed, then an expensive public-education program would be needed to warn that these “abnormal” vehicle sounds exist.

      So many devices exist right now that emit ‘weird’ noises, one might not discern a vehicle from a phone, radio, whatever.

      If my Volt emitted some false whine or Sci-Fi beep, I’d shoot it myself. (If it’s a CAR, it has to sound like a CAR).

  • avatar
    nikitarama

    I just picture a bunch of EVs shouting their names as the roll through the Whole Foods parking lot: Prius! Prius! Prius! Teeesla Teeesla BoltBoltBolt

  • avatar

    What was that little GM prototype back in the 1990s? EV1 or something? My neighbor had one of the pilot cars and I remember that thing beeped when it was backing up.

    I hate stats like 19% more likely to be hit by an EV. Are EVs more likely to be driven by folks in areas with high pedestrians due to demographics? DO EVs spend more time on high pedestrian traffic roads due to limited highway ranges? Are EVs more likely to be driven by a less safe group of people? So many factors to consider before we jump to more regs and more cost.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    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.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    “ba-RINNNG ding DING ding ding PA ding-dading-dading PA dingading DING dina RING RING ding PAP dading da-ding ding ring…”

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