Why electric cars need sounds, not just noise
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is finally getting around to mandating that electric and hybrid vehicles must make noise when traveling at low speeds so pedestrians, cyclists and the visually impaired know they’re coming. At least those remaining few who’ve chosen not to defeat their audial experience of the external world with earbuds, Beats headphones and the like.
Yes, hearing things coming at you. What a concept. Like hearing itself, so undeniably vital in the real world, right up there with seeing as one of Mother Nature’s best defenses against getting run over, even before the advent of the motorcar. Not unlike automobiles you can’t see, automobiles you can’t hear are a ready danger. And when you can’t see them and you can’t hear them, both, brother, you better look out.
NHTSA says mandating electric car noise will prevent 2,800 pedestrian and cyclist injuries every year, protecting those who can’t ever see along with those who usually can. Electric cars remain eerily quiet at low speed, especially when you compare their sound profile to the menacing amalgam of gasping, sucking and farting noises an approaching internal-combustion-engine automobile makes as it loudly prepares to rumble across your path.
While some will object to yet another nanny state government intrusion into the design of automobiles, the change is relatively minor, easily effected and not wildly expensive, at all. And it makes total sense. While the whooshing of tires only grows with speed, the hum of electric motors whirring is always faint, meaning electric cars make virtually no noise at low speeds, before tire and wind noise kick in. Carmakers, safety advocates and regulators agree that such silence poses a danger; the 2010 congressional directive calling for synthetic electric car noise faced virtually no opposition from the industry.
I personally discovered the danger of the sounds of EV silence as far back as 2007, test-driving a prototype Tesla sports car along 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach, when I nearly took out a couple of old duffers obliviously crossing the road to the next hole without once looking to see the speeding two-seater bearing down on them. It took me several seconds to realize that this golfing duo were not meaning to act in the manner of over-entitled lords of the realm, who couldn't bother to turn their heads or halt their gait for anything. Rather they were a couple of unfortunates who couldn't hear me coming. I braked hard, just in time to closely observe them shaking their over-entitled but genuinely startled fists my way. It was an experience I’ll not forget; the sure look of terror and surprise in their eyes undoubtedly mirroring that in my own, with the added elements, in their case, of anger and excess privilege.
NHTSA’s proposed rule will require electric and hybrid cars to generate noise up to 18 mph, beyond which, the agency has concluded, the cars become noisy enough to be heard. (Not apparently the case with that early Tesla I drove, right?) While the agency will use public input to craft a final rule, it has preliminarily concluded that the sounds of conventional engines are best. Some narrow flexibility –a small menu of sound choices – is anticipated. Maybe it will be like the old days once again, when you could tell by its distinctive engine sounds that a Volkswagen product had pulled up. Same thing with Volvos, MGs and Chryslers with slant sixes; you didn't even have to look to know what had arrived.