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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Electric cars are quiet. Maybe too quiet.

There’s an ongoing controversy over whether electric vehicles (EVs) should emit sounds to let the blind and other pedestrians know they’re on the scene. Some think those sounds should be standardized — like the “beep, beep, beep” of heavy machinery backing up, so you’ll think “something heavy this way comes” when you hear it — and some think any sound will do.

Several car companies have created their own sounds, especially for cars marketed outside the United States.

I wrote a New York Times piece on this topic, and judging from the response, it’s clear people really get caught up in the possibilities. If car owners can just get control over the process and customize their sounds, the “cartones” industry will be born, and soon people will be spending tens of millions of dollars on them. Of course, there are also an amazing number of possible pitfalls. Can you imagine using Rick James’ “Superfreak” as your cartone, and then waking up your neighbor when you get home from a party at 3 a.m.?

This is a serious subject, though. Plug-in hybrid cars and battery EVs are super-quiet, and a study at the University of California, Riverside concludes that people listening to recordings on headphones can hear a regular gas car coming from 28 feet away, but a hybrid in battery mode only when it’s seven feet away.

EU changes EV rules

In response, the European Union has put new rules into play: As of July 1, all new electric vehicle models must have a noise-emitting device, which sounds like a traditional engine. Starting in 2021, all new electric vehicles of any model will need the acoustic vehicle alert system or AVAS. That sound will come into play when the car is reversing or when it’s traveling at less than 12 miles an hour — speeds at which cars are more likely to be mingling with pedestrians.

That’s a nice start, say representatives for the blind, but more is needed.

“We’re calling on the government to take this announcement further by requiring AVAS on all existing electric and hybrid vehicles and to ensure drivers have them switched on,” John Welsman, guide dog owner and Guide Dogs staff member, said in a statement shared by CNN.

This action followed in the steps of Japan, which was an early adopter, passing its rules in 2010. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration passed its final ruling in February 2018, requiring vehicles to emit sound if they’re traveling slower than 18.6 mph.

Drivers in most instances have the ability to shut off the device when needed.

My guess is that they will eventually be standardized so your mind will automatically register “electric car” when you hear it. And that’s probably a good thing to reduce the mayhem on the roads.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in October 2009.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Electric cars are quiet. Maybe too quiet.

Automakers are devising unique sounds to let the blind and other pedestrians know that EVs are approaching. Now the EU requires it on new vehicles.


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