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

January 5, 2011

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

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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

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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

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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

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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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