Noise Makers for Electric Cars: Won’t Be Law in the U.S. Until 2018

Regardless of your opinion on them, rules mandating that all plug-in and hybrid cars make some form of artificial noise to alert pedestrians of their presence have long been promised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) following a large amount of lobbying by the National Federation for the Blind.

In fact, it was as far back as 2011 that a law — the Pedestrian Safety Act — was put onto the books to ensure that automakers include noise makers on all hybrid and plug-in vehicles. But despite being on the books for four years, there still isn’t an agreed implementation detailing how automakers must comply with the law.

The 2015 VW e-Golf includes noise fakery. Come 2018, all U.S.-market electric and hybrid cars will need it.

The 2015 VW e-Golf includes noise fakery. Come 2018, all U.S.-market electric and hybrid cars will need it.

Hammering out that implementation has been the job of NHTSA since the law was passed, but as Wards Auto detailed last week, despite originally planning to bring guidelines into force far sooner, NHTSA has now set a deadline of September 2018 for all automakers to comply.

This delay might have pleased automakers who have been lobbying for an extension for the compliance and are reticent to add noise-makers to their plug-in and hybrid vehicles, but it hasn’t pleased lobbyists at the National Federation of the Blind.

“We’re very disappointed that the PESA’s final rule hasn’t been released.” said John Pare, National Federation of the Blind’s executive director for advocacy. “The number of silent cars continues to increase, only making the need for the rule that much more important to pedestrians.”

Yet while lobbyists for pedestrians — both sighted and visually impaired — argue that noisemakers would dramatically improve pedestrian safety, a large number of studies and automotive insiders remain to be convinced.

Hybrid cars -- and we presume hydrogen fuel cell cars -- will also need to make noise from September 2018.

Hybrid cars — and we presume hydrogen fuel cell cars — will also need to make noise from September 2018.

At speeds above 15 mph or so, the noise of the tires against the road is considered loud enough by many to warn pedestrians of an electric car’s presence, while others argue that modern gasoline-engined vehicles — especially premium-market models — are as equally as quiet at slow speeds as an electric vehicle.

Here at Transport Evolved we conducted a very unscientific test a year or so in a quiet residential neighbourhood on a Sunday morning with a visually-impaired volunteer and one of our staff 2011 Nissan LEAFs. At 10 mph, the volunteer was unable to differentiate the presence of our LEAF from any other car, and noted she could tell no difference from our passing by with both noise-alert system activated and with it deactivated.

In a louder environment such as a busy city centre, she confided detecting any car — regardless of the noise — was difficult. In order to detect the presence of a car from the background noise, she said it would need to be far louder than any noise maker she had heard.

Regardless of the need or not of noisemakers — and we fear this argument will go on for a long time after the standards come into force — NHTSA’s latest version of the requirements dictate that all new hybrid and electric cars, light trucks and vans, medium and heavy duty trucks, busses, low-speed vehicles and motorcycles produce some form of artificial sound to announce their presence. Essentially, any vehicle sold after September 2018 which can move without the need of an internal combustion engine will require an artificial noisemaker to be fitted.

Do you agree with the regulations? Do you prefer your cars to be quiet or noisy? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below

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  • Michael Thwaite

    Happy, peaceful, days!

  • I would prefer that cars be as silent as practical as long as car manufacturers add technology to prevent pedestrian impacts. Car makers have started to implement parking assistance, adaptive cruise technologies. Pedestrian detection and safety should be capable of being automated as well.nnnAny solution that requires a human to prevent impact will be subject to human error, which means impacts will continue despite legislation to make noises.nnnNoise is OK in the absence of automatic collision avoidance, I’d much prefer to see the latter than the former.

  • Joe

    I’m torn. I’ve been driving a Prius for eight years and have seen, many times, the startled look of a pedestrian as I crept up behind someone in a parking lot. I didn’t want to honk my horn and be rude or inappropriate but that’s really the only option. I’d be happy to see a voluntary noise maker like a horn, but more subtle for cases like that. A sort of “yoo hoo… I’m right behind you” alert. nnIf a mandatory can’t-turn-it-off noise is the way to go, I hope it’s also subtle, like maybe the sound of a tire with a rock stuck in it. If the artificial noise sounds like an internal combustion engine… that’s a great way to make our kids laugh at us in twenty years.

  • vdiv

    Most EVs have such a system already, it’s called a “car stereo”. The way it works is you open all windows and blast the most annoying choon you can find.nnThe end result? The jaywalker still can’t hear you as they are blasting their own version of the most annoying choon in their eardrums, so loud that you can in fact hear it over yours.

    • n8r0n

      This noise business is the quintessential arms race. You need a loud car to be heard in an urban environment, to rise above all the other ambient noise. Why is there so much ambient noise in cities? Largely, because of noisy cars.nnnThis is exactly the same phenomenon as people feeling the need to drive their kids around in successively larger tanks (SUVs as they refer to them).nnnHaving giant cars (1000 lbs heavier on average than a generation ago) has no systemic societal benefit. People just want to have a heavier car than the guy driving next to him, so you can smash him in an accident.nnnThis is the “Baby on Board” mentality: my passengers are more important than you are.

  • n8r0n

    This noisemaker business is a pretty blatant attempt by the entrenched auto industry to hamstring budding electric vehicles (adding a noisemaker adds cost and defeats one of the natural advantages of an electric car … the beautiful silence).nnnThis is partly based on a misinterpretted study from about 5 years ago. Over a span of 8 or 9 years, hybrids (which are essentially EVs at low speed) were studied to determine the likelihood of pedestrian accidents. Makes sense.nnnThe study concluded that the “silent” hybrids were 40% more likely to get into accidents with pedestrians than traditional vehicles. This is used as the “evidence” that we need EV noisemakers.nnnWhat was glossed over in this analysis is that hybrids aren’t spread out equally in all areas. Hybrids are adopted at about twice the rate in urban, vs. rural areas (by this definition, about half the country now qualifies as “urban”). But, the rate of pedestrian accidents for all cars in urban areas is about twice that of ped accidents in rural areas. No surprise. Cities are more dense, have more traffic, more ambient noise and other distractions.nnnThe 40% higher rate of hybrid pedestrian accidents is entirely explained by the fact that hybrids tend to live in more urban areas, where pedestrian accidents are more common.nnnMeanwhile, “rolling coal” is legal for diesel truck owners. Could this society get any more ridiculous?

  • brian D.

    Noise makers to announce their presence to pedestrians? Yeah I think that’s called the horn

  • danwat1234

    Shouldn’t be very hard to disable the speaker for this noise, if you choose to.

  • jimirod

    I don’t feel it will do much good to make electric and hybrids noisy – It will have to be an adjustment for some time that pedestrians and any body crossing a street have to look up and see where they are going. Deaf people have to do it and it works for them.
    Look at all the wild animals you have to honk your horn at; this should apply to anyone crossing the streets, any street or freeway or alley.