Silent But Deadly: The EU Wants Electric Cars to Add Sounds for Safety

Last week, the European Parliament ruled that all electric and hybrid cars must add artificial engine noise so that pedestrians can hear them coming. While the mandate is mostly to protect visually impaired pedestrians, the noise will also benefit anyone on the street who's ever had a near-miss with a Prius.

The fear that a quiet car might kill you is not unfounded: According to one study in 2012, when traveling at speeds under 35 mph, hybrids and electric vehicles are 37 percent more likely to hit walkers and 66 percent more likely to hit cyclists than traditional gas-powered cars.

In the EU, cars will be required to add something called an acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS) that will generate sound while the car is in motion. Although a similar recommendation has been voluntary in the past, it is now a requirement, and manufacturers have five years to comply. Here in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took a slightly different tack, proposing minimum sound requirements for electric cars back in 2013. You can actually hear recordings of gas vs. electric vehicles which they used to determine the "safe" level. But manufacturers fought the proposed rule, saying that the increased engine noises would be annoying to those inside the car, and many introduced their own ideas, from warning chirps to amplifying tire sounds. The mandate was supposed to go into effect later this year, but has been delayed.

According to the Daily Mail, the artificial noise mandated by the EU will just sound like a conventional engine—maybe they can get that 60 Minutes sound engineer to generate some potential audio for them. But this regulation actually opens up all sorts of possibilities. If manufacturers are indeed replacing one non-existent engine sound with a new engine sound, might we start to see customized car audio? What if I could outfit my tiny Smart Car with the growl of a Chevy V8? Or maybe my Prius could roar like a Tie-Fighter.

It also raises some questions about the sound design of our cities in general. If I poke my head out the window right now, I hear birds chirping and a dog barking a few yards away—but the most dominant sound is cars, from the ones slowly driving up my street to the hum of the freeway a mile away. There's really no need for us to pump up the grating of a combustion engine. There might be other ways—redesigning the acoustics of our roads?—to alert pedestrians and cyclists about the danger of an approaching vehicle without simply overdubbing another mechanized sound on our already noisy cities. Why would we want to replace one motorized whir with another, when we have the opportunity to truly redesign the way our cities are experienced acoustically? [Daily Mail]

The Nissan Leaf is equipped with Nissan's Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians, photo by Mariordo