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Chirp, Bruup, or Artificial Engine Sound -- Will You Know an EV Is Approaching


Here at Family Car Guide, we were all atwitter at the news late last month that the Senate and House both passed the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010. Now it awaits President Barack Obama’s signature before going into law.

In essence, this law directs the Secretary of Transportation to study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides blind and other pedestrians of a motor vehicle’s operation.

That means electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, extended-range hybrid electrics like the Chevrolet Volt, full parallel hybrids like the Kia Optima Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and extended-range all-electric like the Fisker Karma will have to have some sort of audible warning system in place with minimum sound levels – and it will have to be automatic, not driver-activated or optional equipment.

While there’s still some time before automakers will have to implement whatever standards are developed, it does lead Family Car Guide to wonder where this will all shake out.

After all, right now, the audible sounds of an EV approaching are here and there and nowhere to be heard.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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For example, the Nissan Leaf uses a synthesizer to emit a noise alerting pedestrians of its approach. Some reviewers say its similar to a gentler version of an airplane on takeoff, or a spaceship approach common in old sci-fi movies. On backing up, Leaf reportedly pings like sonar. Well, what is it – a combo plane or spaceship in flight or a submarine? Where do they come up with these ideas?

The good news here is that the noise alert on Leaf is automated. There’s no driver activation required. And it comes standard with the car. But there is a button that allows drivers to temporarly deactivate the system – a feature that will have to be eliminated when the law goes into full effect.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

Moving on to the Chevrolet Volt and its manually-activated pedestrian alert, we’re struck by the idea that the driver, who’s normally preoccupied with driving, will have to make the conscious decision to somehow activate an alert on the left-column stalk – for a pedestrian he or she may not even see. That seems a little self-defeating.

News reports quote GM insiders saying that the sound is kind of like a “bruup, bruup” – isn’t that descriptive? Actually, the same insiders go on to say that it’s like the low tone of a horn, except it won’t startle pedestrians (or, presumably, bicyclists).

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Enlarge Photo

The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid mid-size sedan has standard Virtual Engine Sound System (VESS) as its sound-alert technology. VESS plays a pre-recorded engine sound during electric-only operation to notify people outside the vehicle that it’s approaching.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Enlarge Photo

Presumably, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid will have similar sound-alert technology and functioning – and will also be standard.

2011 Fisker Karma

2011 Fisker Karma

Enlarge Photo

The Fisker Karma high-performance luxury plug-in hybrid reportedly has speakers inside the car and out that simulates a sound somewhere between a Formula One car and a jet. That’s a pretty wide spectrum – undoubtedly loud.

Let’s hope those minimum sound levels get sorted out soon. Maybe, while the Secretary of Transportation is at it, working with auto industry manufacturer groups and others, they can figure out some sort of uniform standard. After all, safety is a huge concern for everyone – families in cars and on the sidewalks and street crossings. Blind pedestrians, bicycle riders, and children also need to have some understanding of what sound goes with what vehicle.

Otherwise, get ready for EV and hybrid cacophony – a multitude of sounds resulting in ultimate confusion.

For another perspective on this issue, see “Making Silent Electric Cars Noisier: 3 Carmakers, 3 Sounds,” from Green Car Reports.

[GovTrack.us, The Car Connection]

 
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Comments (9)
  1. This article only looks at the safety benefits of car sounds whilst ignoring the negative health effects of background noise on those living near highways (http://www.un.org/earthwatch/health/noisepollution.html).
     
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  2. Thomas, thanks for the comment on health effect of background noise on those living near highways. As U.S. President Barack Obama has just signed the Pedestrian Safety Act of 2010 into law, there will be standards developed governing the sound that EVs and plug-in hybrids will be required to make when traveling at low speed levels (i.e. 20 mph and under). As you know, at speed on electric, they are soundless. So it doesn't seem as if too much sound will be an issue here. Thanks again for the comment and the link.
     
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  3. Hopefully the law applies to all cars, not just electric. There was a study in the 90's using blind test subjects that found some gas cars were harder to hear than electric ones. EV's do make tire noise. I have over 85,000 miles of EV driving and have never had a close call with a pedestrian.
     
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  4. I find this entertaining. Imagine the possibilities! Downloadable and customizable "drive tones". Pop music, rude sounds. Neighborhoods will never be the same!
    That said, the overall result of this law, with the
     
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  5. Brian, good point about EVs and tire noise. And congrats on your 85 thousand plus EV driving -- and no close pedestrian calls. CT, cute comment, but I'm interested in what got left out of your post?
     
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  6. Golly gee, folks! Have they already rescinded the law which requires someone to be walking in front of a horseless carriage waving a red flag or a red lantern to avoid frightening the horses?
     
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  7. Morton, great visual. But I'm sure pedestrians heard (and smelled) the horse-powered carriage in time...
     
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  8. The current generation of EV's are a white elephant because of what the owner faces when it comes time to trade these in. Who is going to want to buy one of these things when it has 80k plus miles on it knowing that the the battery is only warrented for 100k miles? Can you immagine what the cost will be to replace the battery bank?! Guess who's going to take the hit come tade in time? It sure won't be the dealer! There goes the savings in the MPG's that the EV gave to the owner.
    Plus who ever buys an EV are stuck with having to go to their dealer to have it service. I'd don't think too many Mom & Pop shops are ready to service EV's.
    I'm not really sure the US's outdated electrical grid is ready for the demand of EV's. People forget how many brown about days the US experienced during a really hot summer season when AC's were cranked up.
    I'll stay away from EV's until these issued are resolved.
     
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  9. Matt, you certainly raise some valid points. There are still many issues to be worked out before EVs become solidly mainstream. Brownouts and high electric bills are just two that hit consumers big time. Thanks for the comments.
     
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