Should electric cars be intentionally made noisier?

This is a guest post by Chelsea Sexton, my friend and costar of the 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”  At a young age, Chelsea began working for GM marketing their ill-fated electric car, the EV1.  She even married an EV1 service technician!  Now she serves as the Executive Director of Plug In America (full bio here).  Her first guest post was, “So what is it like to actually drive the Chevy Volt plug in hybrid electric car?“).  This post was first published on her blog.  The picture is of Fisker Karma’s artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers.

Fisker Karma's artificial sound-emitting bumper speakers

For the most part, the electric vehicle world is palpably buzzing with excitement of cars to come — and after some seriously dark years, there is much to look forward to. The collective conversation has finally shifted from “if” to “how”, but even on easier “how” points, we can’t seem to get out of our own way — which really doesn’t bode well for the hard stuff.

Case in point is a newly-emerging issue over the silence of hybrids and electric cars. In the EV generation of the 1990’s, their comparative lack of noise was a selling point. Now, according to some, it’s a threat to life itself.

Advocacy organizations and hyper news reports are forming a chorus with a fairly shrill tune: “Electric cars are going to kill blind people!” Policymakers are now considering a minimum noise requirement for vehicles; worse, automakers are doing it voluntarily. In due time, plug-ins stand to be a favorite domain of the SEMA crowd, so I’m not referring to the folks who want to trick out their EV as Kitt to their David Hasselhoff. It’s in the proposed custom to add constant noise to all hybrids and plug-in vehicles that we’ve collectively lost the plot.

Pedestrian safety is obviously not an unfair consideration, though the amount of spontaneous momentum it’s received lately raises eyebrows.  Realistically, the blind community would likely be the least affected group, compared to the number of sighted pedestrians who run around with iPods connected to noise-blocking earphones or on cell phones (often all but screaming into them to be heard over traffic noise, adding to the communal din), or who simply aren’t paying as much attention as we should. And, there is experience to draw upon “¦ in addition to the EVs deployed to date, we have a decade of experience with hybrids, also electrically driven at low speeds. Are Prii littering crosswalks and parking lots with fallen bi-peds and I’m just out of touch?

Either way, we’ve taken a question that was asked and answered years ago and are turning it into an industry imperative. Except when at a dead stop — when pedestrians of all sorts are reasonably safe, plug-in vehicles are not silent. Many are quiet (though, with today’s insulation and sound-deadening measures, so are many gas cars) but they still have some amount of motor whine, electronic humming, fans, coolant pumps, tire noise, etc. Plug-in hybrids may also have gasoline engines running. Yet even with these “features”, GM engineers thought of and addressed the issue years ago:  Every EV1 came equipped with a wonkily-named “pedestrian alert alarm”. At low speeds, drivers could engage an electronic chirp/headlight flash to warn pedestrians, as needed, that the car was approaching- loud enough to get attention, but not nearly as startling as the regular horn. Drivers loved it- the car made extra noise only in the moments it mattered. Those on foot were protected- the proverbial “win-win”. So why are we trying to make what was so simply solved a dozen years ago so complicated today?

Electric vehicles were once pervertedly argued to be a social justice issue based on the idea that only wealthier folks were able to afford the early ones, so their communities would have the air-quality benefits. In response, S. David Freeman has incredulously noted that “air doesn’t know a boundary between Brentwood and South LA”. However, plug-ins could in fact be a tool in the social justice box for their lower noise profile in addition to lack of tailpipe. The goal shouldn’t be to make them louder but to aim at sucking decibels from all vehicles. Yes, I know that performance vehicle enthusiasts would have me strung up (I do grok that many think thrust is as much an aural experience as a visceral one), but who would argue that mom’s minivan is deficient without a throaty internal combustion growl? Cleaner, quieter transport means higher property values in often economically depressed neighborhoods adjacent to freeways and high-traffic roadways, to say nothing of the health of the families living there and public dollars saved from not building sound walls and other noise abatement measures. Electric drive technology has attendant benefits beyond the obvious environmental and energy concerns that we haven’t begun to analyze- but should, before we go adulterating it.

But (and it’s a big one), none of this takes away from the most important- and most overlooked point:


More simply said, if you can’t avoid hitting people you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle of any kind. In all of the angst over this issue, it bears repeating. Now can we please — pretty please — get back to the actual (and not insignificant) work of putting cars on the road?

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26 Responses to Should electric cars be intentionally made noisier?

  1. I have no doubt that they will require hybrids and electric vehicles to produce some sort of sound to protect the blind.

    The question is: what sort of sound?

    A recent NY Times article suggested that people would be able to choose their own sound trancks, as they choose ring tones for cell phones. The difference is that a cell phone rings for a moment, but these sound tracks would run whenever the car ran. Any densely developed area would be filled with constant noise, so fewer people would want to live in dense. Even in the suburbs, as soon as a teenager got a car, everyone on the street would be forced to listen to his favorite music. This would be a major obstacle to smart growth, and would degrade the quality of life for everyone.

    By constrast, if hybrids and EVs were required to make a quiet, whooshing noise, they could make our cities quieter and more livable, and encourage smart growth.

    I makes no sense to say: “More simply said, if you can’t avoid hitting people you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle of any kind.” Blind people cross the street based on sound, and they sometimes walk out right in front of a moving hybrid. There is no doubt that there will be some sound required to protect them.

  2. Phil says:

    I almost knocked over a biped today because I didn’t hear them coming up behind me on their bicycle when I was walking home along the pavement by a busy road.

    Why cyclists cycle on footpaths and not on the road is one of those perennial problems – I wouldn’t cycle on the road over, might get knocked over by a Prius…

    So when are people going to start clamouring for cycles to be made noisy at all times? There are many more of them than EVs / hybrids, and they tend to be ridden on on footpaths rather a lot.


  3. Seth Masia says:

    Bicycles are a great case in point. I frequently cycle across the university campus. Students stroll obliviously in the bike paths, lost deep in their music, texting on their phones, and unable to hear bells, whistles and shouts of annoyance. They herd in bike path intersections. The blind pedestrians are far more cognizant of their surroundings than the average modern sighted sophomore.

  4. sikiş says:

    So when are people going to start clamouring for cycles to be made noisy at all times? There are many more of them than EVs / hybrids, and they tend to be ridden on on footpaths rather a lot.

  5. Or lets just say that any moving object above a certain mass should announce proximity. Including military projectiles.

  6. GFW says:

    Charles, blind people typically don’t jaywalk in urban environments. They use crosswalks, which can be, and often are, equipped with sounds of their own to indicate when pedestrians can cross. In very dense locations like NYC, the blind pedestrian simply crosses when all the other pedestrians are crossing. Conversely, in a small town without crosswalks, drivers are supposed to be slower and more careful. And as has been pointed out, a conventional car can be very quiet.

    Phil, totally agreed – I shall duct tape a boom box to my handlebars forthwith :-)

  7. Brooks Bridges says:

    While visiting my son in NYC I found myself shouting to be heard over the traffic. So how loud must a car be to be heard? Obviously, depends.

    If people were nailed with any consistency for jumping lights, running lights (mainly the ones that just turned red), etc., there would be far fewer pedestrians hit. Enforce existing laws first, then see if additional are needed.

    Are we really protecting blind people or the idiots talking on their cell phones or listening to music via earplugs? How loud does a car have to be to penetrate their consciousness?

    I think we have far bigger problems to worry about.

  8. I am very amused by the comparison with bicycles, but before you add a boombox to your bike, please answer this question: What percent of people who are hit by bikes are killed or seriously injured and what percent of people who are hit by cars are killed or seriously injured?

    from an article about the subject:
    … the Wall Street Journal reported that some blind people already had close calls with hybrid vehicles. It is a common knowledge that visually handicapped persons relies on their sense of hearing to navigate busy streets. And since hybrid cars produces almost no sound at all just as silent as an EBC Brake Rotors when engaged, on low speed driving, blind people will not know if there is a car within the vicinity. This heightened the risk faced by blind people in traversing a city’s walkways. The quietness that hybrid cars may be a strong selling point for the car manufacturer but it poses a constant threat to blind people and this fact should not be ignored.

    In response to the increased risk that blind people is now facing with the growing number of hybrid vehicles on our streets, the National Federation of the Blind has been lobbying for car manufacturers to take action with regard to the thereat posed by hybrid cars. The advocacy group stressed out those quiet hybrid vehicles not only poses threat to those people who are blind but for other sighted pedestrians. Cyclists and elderly persons also rely on a car’s sound to determine the position and speed of a vehicle. They also pointed out that while there are still no fatalities or injuries caused by the relative quietness of a hybrid car, the increasing popularity of hybrid cars may soon have a negative impact on the safety of pedestrians.

    The National Federation of the Blind proposes to car makers that hybrid cars should at least emit a sound audible to pedestrians who rely on car sounds in navigating a city’s thoroughfare.

    But I guess a lot of people reading this site know more about the safety of the blind than the National Federation of the Blind does.

  9. Brendan says:

    Tire noise quickly overtakes engine sound at even a few miles per hour in a modern luxury car, yet there’s no concern there. It’s ridiculous to think that a blind person, who is likely acutely aware of sounds most of us with sight would miss, won’t notice the electronic fan and other sounds emitting from a stopped hybrid or EV they’re about to cross paths with. While there are rare cases where the sound might prevent an accident with a person who isn’t paying attention, it is a complete straw-man argument to use blind people as an excuse. If anyone is going to benefit from this, it’s seeing people who are looking the wrong way or just not paying attention. Why do the proponents of this feel the need to exploit the blind?

    If a vehicle is moving along at such a speed that a person could “walk out in front of it,” then it’s moving fast enough to create aero, tire and motor noise to a sufficient level that it can be heard. As with luxury cars, I have no problem noticing a Prius in the grocery store parking lot as parking lot debris crushes under tires and electronic sounds are emitted. I’ve driven an EV for two years and have yet to hit anybody, or even come close; I can’t say the same for others along the path of my commute. Pedestrians and cyclists are far more likely to be hit by inattentive drivers turning into them, as I’ve seen and experienced on multiple occasions, than to walk into the path of the driver. The presence of noise makes no difference in these types of accidents.

  10. Seth Masia says:

    Let’s require manufacturers of quiet vehicles to contribute to a fund that will give seeing-eye dogs to ALL blind folks. That ought to contribute significantly to the Gross Happiness Product.

  11. Are we really protecting blind people or the idiots talking on their cell phones or listening to music via earplugs? How loud does a car have to be to penetrate their consciousness? I think we have far bigger problems to worry about.

    This obviously has nothing to do with idiots listening to music, who can’t hear the traffic but who can see it.

    If you were blind, I think that you would consider protecting yourself from serious injury to be a fairly big problem.

  12. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Idiots with I pods and those on cell phones wont see or hear anything anyway. They can’t see a 12 ton bus with headlights on, they can’t hear the squeal of brakes.

    Are they the same ones that cant hear sirens and air horns and do not see the flashing lights of fire engines when driving?

    What does the blind association say? If the urban environment was generally quieter then the added noise would not have to be very loud.

    Given the purpose, I suspect all cars using the same sound would be a better idea. Say a 50-60db whirring. On a mass produced car you are probably only talking $3.

  13. Jean-Loup says:

    As a cyclist, I can relate to those pedestrians who see us as a danger to their quiet walking. However, the fact is we’re more likely to be the ones being injured as we try to dodge people, dogs and other obstacles who don’t like us on the cycle and foot path anyway.

    The same is true for responsible drivers of quiet vehicles who try to avoid hitting people crossing the road, whether they are blind or not. In all likelihood, they will swerve in a last attempt to prevent a collision or simply slow down if the obstacle is visible enough with plenty of time.

    Pedestrians are responsible people too, or at least they ought to be. Self-preservation normally goes both ways.

  14. Anna Haynes says:

    Sound, please. Just a low tone, or something white-noisey; it can turn off above X mph, when the car makes enough noise on its own.

    Truth is, it’d be nice for bikes too.

  15. Alex A. says:

    Has anyone found a comprehensive study on this topic? EV technology is decades old at this point, and hybrids have been in mass production for several years, so you would think that some one has actually done a study on vehicle noise levels and pedestrian safety.

    I agree with Anna (post #14) that requiring a noisemaker below a certain speed would be reasonable (it should shut off when the vehicle is stationary), and I too would certainly prefer standardized sounds or white noise… I shudder when I imagine the cacophony resulting from customizable “drive tones.”

  16. Christophe says:

    It’s not just for the blind. I think that people here underestimate how much we use our hearing when dealing with cars and traffic. Maybe if all the cars were quiet and we had grown up among them, we would have adjusted, but the thing is that, in addition to seeing them, we rely on hearing them to detect their presence. I don’t think that’s a major issue though. We could just have them make a discrete whooshing sound at low speed, when wind and rolling noises are deemed insufficient.

  17. Mike#22 says:

    Even before hydrids some of the more expensive Japanese cars, like a few Lexus models, have zero road noise when coasting. Ghosts. As a cyclist of about 45 years, I am always listening for the next car looking to pass, and a few coupes are impressively silent.

    The Priuses have a faint whine when coasting or slowing. The Lexus hybrids can be really loud.

    Old problem.

    Anna has it right, a low tone. And as you approach a ped, cyclist, deer, etc, please tap your horn from about 100 yards back. Share the road.

  18. question says:

    The problem isn’t noise-less cars — the problem is blind people walking in front of quiet cars. So we should focus on the solution to that problem, not the problem of how to make cars noisy.

    Is there another way to stop blind people walking in front of moving vehicles? Could a device be designed that a blind person would aim at the street to detect moving vehicles? Let’s be creative about focusing on solving the ultimate problem, not what appears to be the proximate.

  19. Brent says:

    I think it’s a mistake to think electric cars are completely silent. They aren’t, even at low speeds. When they aren’t heard, however, I’d argue that it’s mostly because their sound at lower speeds is much less than that of some gasoline powered cars. It will take us time to get used to it. Too, with quieter roads fully populated by electric cars, they’ll be heard just fine at any speed. All this talk of noisemakers looks like a solution in search of a problem.

  20. russ says:

    A rather silly topic!

    Certainly gets all the loonies wound up though!

    No 19 Brent says it nicely except it is idiots in search of a problem.

  21. Jonah says:

    Bravo #18 for hitting the nail on the head. Let’s not legislate minimum noise levels for cars with a certain technological composition, rather let’s solve the original problem: providing vision-impaired folks with a safe way to cross the street. I’m sure they’d be happier with a device that would tell them if there’s anything—hybrid, bike, truck, grand piano, or otherwise, heading towards them at speed.

  22. Sam Clark, Jr. says:

    Requiring electric vehicles to make noise would be comparable to requiring solar panel manufacturers to build in smoke generators to comfort people that miss smog from coal plants. In fact, the silence of electric cars is something to be promoted as a way to help address what is a well documented chronic problem of noise pollution in heavy traffic areas.

    If there is in fact a problem to be addressed with quite cars (this has yet to be adequately demonstrated in my view), the answer lies inpromoting pedestrian safety, not in imposing yet more noise on urban dwellers.

    Data are available that show that chronic exposure to noise in urban areas has serious adverse health effects. I believe that these effects cumulatively equal or surpass the death and disablility of accidents caused by failure to hear cars.

    I suspect that the proponents of making electric cars noisy are in some cases supported and encouraged by manufacturers of internal combustion engine vehicles, who want to preserve the market for their outmoded products.

    Do not make quiet cars noisy, rather make pedestrians better informed and keep them out of the way of cars with better traffic patterns!

  23. Bill Felsher says:

    We are missing a business opportunity here. How about an aftermarket device for your electric car that enables you to select from a variety of sounds? Younger drivers might choose the “Fast and Furious” street racer exhaust sound. Those of us who are older and going through a mid-life crisis might choose the engine and exhaust sound of a classic Ferrari. Monty Python fans could choose the clopping of hoofs simulated by two coconuts.

  24. A Siegel says:

    RE 22

    Sam — Bull’s eye, 100% agreement. The lack of noise is one of the joys of going electric, for the driver/passengers and the people nearby.

  25. Mike says:

    There are fewer blind people than there are cars. The obvious point to attack this “problem” is where there are fewer things to “modify.” Modify blind people by supplying them with some sort of sensor device. Perhaps cars could also include some sort of simple transmitter to help out, but make it the responsibility of the blind to help themselves.

  26. Alain Miville de Chêne says:

    Everyone clamors for his suffering.
    Some worried blind people attach reasons for worrying to the possible silence of electric vehicles.

    Drivers are responsible for not hitting anyone with their vehicles.
    We should be constantly on guard against children chasing balls into the street, cyclists going in the opposite direction to traffic, or not respecting traffic signals, pedestrians with their attention absorbed in other activities than crossing the street, stray animals, and so on.
    We are also on guard for blind people cautiously approaching curbs with their white cane.

    Sound has value when it contrasts with silence.
    I have been in Cairo where all drivers honk their horn all the time. Each added honk serves very little in communicating with other drivers.
    Electric cars are not silent, and they have horns with which a driver can warn an inattentive person that he is there with a big moving potentially dangerous mass.

    I expect that visually handicapped people are very careful in how they move in their surroundings. Since I don’t know any blind people, I can only surmise. Maybe some blind person reading this could comment on what the experience really is to walk in a city without seeing anything.

    I propose that we should be reducing noise instead of devising schemes to augment it.
    The less the noise, the more the remaining sounds will stand out and convey meaning to all including the blind.
    The greatest source of outdoor noise is the internal combustion engine.
    Without its constant presence we wouldn’t have to turn up our earphones so much. I suspect the combustion engine noise to mask sounds that are important for blind people, and possibly cause accidents.
    When most vehicles will be electric, the cities will be much more silent and we will easily hear the sound of tires rolling on the street, and gears turning in electric motors.

    We are on the verge of having real time networked cars where each vehicle’ position, spped, and direction will be known by a computer, either on board or remote, enabling a host of services, one of which could be for blind people to carry a device signaling how far and from which directions vehicles are coming.

    We can think deeper to find solutions that do not require the manufacturing of yet another material product (no good) which would moreover be designed to augment urban noise (no good) rather than diminish it.