In 2010 I wrote a New York Times piece about ultra-quiet electric cars being required to make sounds to warn pedestrians. It improbably ended up on the front page of the paper — everybody loved the idea — you could choose your own ringtone!
Nissan developed custom-made sounds (forward and back-up) for the Leaf, but the law may require more standardized noises. (Photo: Puget Sound Energy/flickr)
Actually, no. If you hear a ringtone, it won’t sound like a warning. The only thing that works is a one-size-fits-all electronic tone, kind of like the insistent beeping you hear when a truck backs up.
Companies like Nissan and Fisker showed off their tones back then. Nissan, in fact, worked on its sounds for years, and came up with more than 100 versions of them. But the law — prompted by groups like the National Federation of the Blind and others — hasn’t actually materialized. The rules was supposed to be finalized around now. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working on it, but, Reuters reports, it may not be until the 2018 model year that cars will actually be equipped with the devices.
The original target date was 2014. Now NHTSA has set next March as a deadline for a final decision on the standards. Tooling up from there will take us to those 2018 models.
Blind people and our children want to be able to travel safely. More than 10 years ago, our members noticed that it was difficult to safely cross streets when not able to hear hybrid vehicles. We supported the National Federation of the Blind in its effort to find a solution to the challenges to our safety posed by silent cars. I can’t believe it has been two years since we were able to get our Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act passed by the United States Congress.
The Fisker Karma, which may come back as just the Karma, had its own unique sounds for pedestrians. (Photo: Chad Horwedel/flickr)
The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act was actually signed by President Obama in early 2011. It directs the Transportation Secretary "to study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides for a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation."
Now it’s four years after the law was enacted, and we’re still waiting. Some of the early proposals, such as a plan by Nissan to allow the driver to turn off the tone were met with protests from blind activists. But Nissan developed a pretty good backup sound, reminiscent of a railroad crossing warning. (You can hear that suggested sound here.) There was also a forward sound. Nissan’s Steve Oldham told me at the time, “You know that show with David Hasselhoff, 'Knight Rider'? The forward sound reminds me of what KITT sounded like.”
Some companies want to be suppliers to automakers for specialized tones.The sound NHTSA approves, however, is likely to be uniform, not unique to each manufacturer. So custom acoustic design may not be the way this shakes out. According to the Detroit Bureau, “NHTSA is looking to come up with something more standardized, and it will set specific speeds at which the vehicle will have to produce warning sounds. Currently, the plan is to require that when a vehicle is operating in electric mode at 18 mph or less.”
The plan could cost $23 million to implement across the U.S. auto industry in the first year. It’s a bit of a burden for EV manufacturers, which struggle with profitability issues. The biggest expense, the Bureau said, is an all-weather external speaker that can get its message heard.
Regardless of what you think of quiet cars making noise, the rules are a good idea. NHTSA says that hybrids are 19 percent more likely to hit pedestrians, and it claims its new rules will prevent injury to 2,800 pedestrians or bike riders each year.
Here's Nissan on how it developed its electric car sounds. Skip to near the end and you'll hear the sounds the company came up with for moving forward and backwards:
And here's a second video, from Britain, that addresses some of the issues around blind people and electric cars: