Electric car noise to be mandated by Federal Motor Safety Act

Nissan Leaf hybrid at an auto show

Electric car noise will be mandatory when the Federal Motor Safety Act goes into effect to prevent collisions with the blind pedestrians and other pedistrians. Flickr photo.

Electric car noise has become a problem. The problem is that electric cars make no noise. Hybrid cars in electric mode at lower speeds are nearly silent. With more hybrid cars on the streets, and more to come, hybrid cars have become silent but deadly. More pedestrians, in particular blind pedestrians, are getting run over. Bills to require automakers to add noise to hybrid cars have bounced around Congress since 2008. But on Wednesday automakers and advocates for the blind presented Congress with a proposal to build in minimum noise levels for future electric cars as part of the Federal Motor Safety Act.

Blind must hear electric car noise

Electric car noise is moving to the forefront of automobile safety. CNN Money.com reports that a study done last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that hybrid cars hit pedestrians more often than other cars in situations where the approaching car cannot be seen. The National Federation for the Blind said blind pedestrians using a guide dog or cane need to hear the sounds of traffic to cross streets safely. People with sight also rely on sound to gauge the distance and speed of oncoming cars.

More hybrid cars hitting the road

Electric car noise, or the lack of it, emerged as an issue when mass production of hybrid cars began in 2000. A 2009 study, reported on topbits.com concluded that drivers have used financing like secured loans to buy more than 1.6 million hybrids since then. In 10 years, the number of hybrids on the road grew from a dozen to more than 1.6 million. This considerable rate of growth is expected to accelerate as more automakers set out to create more hybrids. Total U.S. hybrid sales for April 2010, as reported by hybridcars.com, were 23,561 — a 1.2 percent increase from the month before, and an 8.4 percent increase from April 2009 from one year ago. Sales of the Honda Insight increased by nearly 14 percent from last month.

The Federal Motor Safety Act

Electric car noise advocates include The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the American Council for the Blind and the National Federation for the Blind. The groups recommended language to Congress they would like to see included in the Motor Safety Act of 2010, a bill now moving through Congress that would update national auto safety rules. The need for electric car noise first emerged in the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008–only to become the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. Now the electric car noise issue appears to be gaining traction.

Hybrid car manufacturers making noise

Electric car noise is already being considered by leading hybrid car manufacturers. However, Nissan is preparing to enter the hybrid car market a step ahead of the competition when it comes to electric car noise. Bloomberg reports that three years ago Nissan instructed engineer Toshiyuki Tabata to re-create the sound of an engine. Tabata spent 30 years as a Nissan Motor Co. engineer trying to make gasoline-powered cars quieter. Now he’s consulting music composers to make electric cars noisier — and safer.

The art of electric car noise

To create the appropriate audio for electric car noise, Nissan consulted Japanese film score composers. Tabata and his team cooked up a high-pitched futuristic sound reminiscent of the flying cars in “Blade Runner,” the 1982 science fiction film starring Harrison Ford portraying an android bounty hunter in a dark, dismal future Los Angeles.

“We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” Tabata said.

To produce the electric car noise, a sound system activates automatically when the car starts and deactivates when the vehicle reaches 12 miles per hour. At higher speeds, wind and tire noise are typically enough to make the car detectable.

Regulating electric car noisemakers

Car electronics manufacturers have also developed electric car noisemakers. Tokyo-based Datasystem Co. makes a device selling for $140 that emits 16 different sounds including a cat’s meow, a cartoon-like “boing” and a human voice saying, “Excuse me.” The language proposed by the electric car noise advocacy group would regulate these products. Their version of the bill would have the NHTSA create a new safety standard for hybrid cars establishing a minimum sound required at low speeds.  Drivers would not be able to customize the sound of their cars the same way they download ringtones for cell phones. Instead, hybrid car manufacturers would provide an approved sound or set of sounds for a given make and model.

GM electric cars

One of the most anticipated electric cars is the Chevy Volt. GM’s electric car uses different technology than the hybrid systems that power vehicles from the foreign manufacturers. As reported on greencarreports.com, Chevy said the Volt will be equipped with a driver-controlled system that produces an “automotive quality sound” that pedestrians would instantly recognize, described as a series of low horn audio signals or cues. GM’s electric car can travel 40 miles on its battery. Instead of kicking in at a certain speed, the Volt’s 1.4 liter, 4-cylinder gas powered engine fires up when the battery is depleted. A generator linked to the engine creates electricity and powers the electric motor, extending the Volt’s range up to 300 miles.

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