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Obama Signs 'Bell Bill' To Make Electric Cars Better Heard

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2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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Even a couple of years from now, we'll likely have hundreds of thousands more electric vehicles and hybrids on the road. And the concern, for pedestrians and especially the blind—along with bicyclists, joggers, and small children—is that EVs just don't rumble and buzz along the way that vehicles with conventional internal-combustion engines do.

The electric motor systems and direct-drive systems in EVs simply don't generate much of an audible sound at low speeds—other than a whine that varies by model from very subtle to almost.

Thanks to new legislation, and some agreements among automakers, the typical EV might not be making the sound of a vuvuzela or a Tie-Fighter, but you're going to hear it coming—perhaps with just a little more whine, wow and flutter.

Today President Obama signed the Pedestrian Safety Act (S. 841), which aims to help protect the blind and other pedestrians from "silent vehicle technology," as it was worded in a press release from the National Federation of the Blind.

The bill was introduced to the Senate last April but wasn't passed through Congress until last month.

It might still be a while before the particulars of the bill are determined, as the bill calls for a study to be completed first, but it will almost certainly include stipulations that EVs make a particular noise when they're traveling at less than 20 mph. The new standard will apply to vehicles made or sold beginning two years after the issuance of the new standard.

So far, General Motors, early on in the development of its Chevrolet Volt, started working directly with the National Federation of the Blind, while Nissan has come up with several potential solutions and told GreenCarReports that such a sound is only needed up to about 12 mph; above that point tire noise is enough. Nissan presented its solution to NHTSA back in September 2009.

Not everyone is convinced that the 'Bell Bill' is useful, though, and some have pointed out that it unfairly singles out EVs, while high-end luxury cars that are especially quiet might be more dangerous—considering the distinctive high-pitched whine many EVs make when approaching.

There's also controversy over whether hybrids or electrics actually have a higher chance of hitting pedestrians. Several hybrid vehicles—like the Toyota Prius—run in a near-silent EV mode when coasting or cruising at low speeds, but with hundreds of thousands of hybrids on U.S. streets, there's no data set that conclusively shows an issue with hybrids, more than other types of vehicles, hitting pedestrians. That's even considering that hybrids are driven more in cities, and on low-speed streets congested with pedestrians.


[National Federation of the Blind]

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Comments (9)
  1. What an interesting article. Is there any debate as to whether this sound will be audible within the car, and whether it may lead to more drivers speeding so that they do not have to hear the sound? Thanks for the info, though, it's definitely food for thought!
     
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  2. I get annoyed at this, noise IS polution as well, and to be fair EV's make the same or more noise than a Rolls, Maybach, Merc., or any other car that is built properly. The Streets should be silent, it is the drivers responsibility to avoid obsticles in the path, and the pedestrian to be aware of when and where to cross....final comment, cyclists!
     
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  3. used cars
     
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  4. Please write better.
     
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  5. Instead of an annoying bell, how about a good ripping fart sound? Everybody enjoys a good one EH?
     
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  6. Not to worry about the EV's being heard because when it comes time to trade these 'WHITE ELEPHANTS' in with 80k miles plus(battery warranty is over or near it's end of life span)who is going to want to buy one as as used car? The replacement cost of the battery bank will cost as much as the car itself.
    People also don't realize that buying an EV means you'll be stuck going back to the dealer for service because the Mon & Pop shops won't want to touch these beast!
     
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  7. Hey, doesn't anyone recall the simple thumb operated bicycle bell? I installed one on the handlebar of the four wheeled stroller (rollater) used by me and my wife after hip surgery. I thought it was a pleasant sound.
    Does anyone recall the foot operated bell used by the operator of a tracked street car? Sheesh, you young punks don't know anything!
     
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  8. I agree with Jen Green, that is one of the first things I thought of, too (accelerating quickly or speeding to avoid hearing the sound).
    I believe the best thing to do is not over-engineer a solution that becomes so electronically complicated (proud as the engineers involved might be) that it becomes a liability.
    Taking from the even-tempered Carl Thelin wrote, why not equip EVs (and other stealth vehicles) with a sound button on the steering wheel that enables the driver to select among various friendly sounding warnings.
    Or, inspired by the bicyclists were trying to protect, create a "virtual playing card in the spokes" sound that is emitted from the front of the car till it reaches 15 mph.
    Then again, why not require these people just to look where they are going!?
    (instead of spending many millions of dollars to prevent the Darwin award winner from getting hit).
     
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  9. Hmmmm I think they need to make noise.. I have almost been hit in the parking lot by them.. My job requires me to be in alot of parking lots over the course of my 10 hour day..I rely heavily on my hearing as well sight to know what is going on all around me.... Oh yeah lets rely on people to hit the bell button....
     
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