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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Electric Cars to have downloadable fake engine noise

For decades, automakers have been on a quest to make cars quieter: an auto that purrs, and glides almost silently in traffic. Despite the fact that 70% of the noise generated by a vehcile is created by the tires, some are now claiming electric vehciles and hybrids aren’t noisy enough.

Self appointed safety experts, the same people who brought us the hyper annoying reversing beeper, worry that electric vehicles and hybrids pose a threat if pedestrians can’t hear them approaching and want to impose themselves on automakers to supply some digitally enhanced vroom.

So automakers have now gone on a PR offensive to counter these claims. Just as cellphones have ring tones, “car tones” may not be far behind — an option for owners of electric vehicles to choose the sound their cars emit.

Working with Hollywood special-effects wizards, some hybrid auto companies have started tinkering in sound studios, rather than machine shops, to customize engine noises. The Fisker Karma, an $87,900 plug-in hybrid expected to go on sale next year, will emit a sound — pumped out of speakers in the bumpers — that the company founder, Henrik Fisker, describes as “a cross between a starship and a Formula One car.”

Nissan is also consulting with the film industry on sounds that could be emitted by its forthcoming Leaf battery-electric vehicle, while Toyota has been working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Federation of the Blind and the Society of Automotive Engineers on sounds for electric vehicles.

“One possibility is choosing your own noise,” said Nathalie Bauters, a spokeswoman for BMW’s Mini division, who added that such technology could be added to one of BMW’s electric vehicles in the future.

Despite the fact that EVs haven't even hit the showroom floors yet, Congress introduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 early this year that would require a federal safety standard to protect pedestrians from ultra-quiet cars. We are left to imagine which particular vested interests are funding which special interest group pushing for this kind of law?

Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for traffic safety agency, which is also working on the issue, said, “We’re looking at data on noise and E.V. safety, but manufacturers are starting to address it voluntarily.”

A Toyota spokesman, John Hanson, said: “I don’t know of any injuries related to this, but it is a concern. We are moving rapidly toward broader use of electrification in vehicles, and it’s a fact that these cars are very quiet and could pose a risk to unsighted people.”

A study published last year by the University of California, Riverside and financed by the National Federation of the Blind evaluated the effect of sounds emitted by hybrid and internal-combustion cars traveling at 5 miles per hour.

People listening in a lab could correctly detect a gas-powered car’s approach when it was 28 feet away, but could not hear the arrival of a hybrid operating in silent battery mode until it was only seven feet away. Of couse electric vehciles don't actually drive down footpaths so this only becomes a problem if a blind person jaywalks.

A more realistic proposal may be a law requiring all Vision-impaired people to wear day-glow safety vests when walking near roads, exactly like out-door workers, including Police, are required to do by current occupational health and safety laws.

Mr. Scott, vice president of the advocacy group Plug In America, said he would prefer giving drivers control over whether the motor makes noise, unlike, say, the Fisker Karma, which will make its warning noise automatically.

“Quiet cars need to stay quiet — we worked so hard to make them that way,” he said. “It’s the driver’s responsibility not to hit somebody.”

Mr. Scott has already warmed up to the idea of a car ring tone.

“It should be a manually operated noisemaker, a button on the steering wheel triggering a recording of your choice,” he said. “It could play ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,’ or anything you like.”

Not forgetting the manually operated steering wheel mounted noisemaker already standard on all cars... the HORN!!

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Robert Sharpe said...

Aparently using the horn to inform pedestrians is illegal in UK and you can get prosecuted.

As someone with 2 electric vehicles in the family, the main problem seems to be in car parks, i.e when travelling less than 10 mph (not on the road where the tyre/road noise is similar). On our 106 we have a driver operated beeper which is ideal for this scenario.

So a driver switch to enable a beeper or similar audible device seems the best compromise.

Anonymous said...

it is NOT illegal to warn pedestrians of your cars prescence in the UK,it is against the law to blow your horn in the hours of darkness

Unknown said...


While the blind have been getting some press what about those with a hearing impairment? What about those who only have limited vision? What about those who can see but can't turn their heads? There are many potential handicaps sound coming from a vehicle is only useful at low speeds where pedestrians are present. Consider how much of the time cars travel under those conditions compared to the overwhelming amount of time that unnecessary noise coming from a vehicle will simply add to noise pollution.

When we consider this carefully it is absurd if there is a better alternative. That alternative would be for vehicles to emit silent radio signals. Those signals can be picked as part of the warnings given at crosswalks. In addition pedestrians who needed such warnings could carry a device that would emit a signal appropriate to their impairment: noise, vibration, or light to indicate the presence of a quiet vehicle. Such a device could be extremely useful for all kinds of other applications as well.

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