Making Silent Electric Cars Noisier: 3 Carmakers, 3 Sounds

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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It looks like carmakers are going to make their quiet, electrically powered cars a lot noisier.

And that's going to happen regardless of whether there's any actual data to support the notion that electric cars are so silent they pose a hazard to blind pedestrians.

As of now, three different automakers have taken three different approaches, with more likely to be on the way in future models.

Warbles, blips, or fake engine noises?

The 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car automatically makes a kind of futuristic electronic warbling sound up to 12 miles per hour. Beyond that speed, tire noise suffices, said Mark Perry, Nissan North America's director for product planning and advanced technology.

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

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The 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle, on the other hand, uses a driver-actuated alert system on the left column stalk that blips the horn several times quickly. GM worked with the National Federation of the Blind on that pedestrian warning device.

Now, the new 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid introduced at last week's 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show adds a third variation: a straight-out synthesized engine noise that kicks in whenever the car is running in all-electric mode at 12 mph or below.

Making your hybrid a spaceship

A much greater variety of options is offered by the HALOsonic External Electronic Sound Synthesis system, prototyped by Lotus Engineering but not yet implemented in any production vehicles. It can produce a range of different noises for drivers to select among, from a droning buzz to the simulated exhaust sounds of a variety of virtual engines.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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Among the possibilities are a couple of noises that make a Toyota Prius hybrid sound like a spaceship. Which we much prefer to fake engine sounds.

Thus far, Japanese colussus Toyota hasn't weighed in with a noise-making technology. That company has built and sold roughly two-thirds of the hybrid-electric vehicles on the planet today, so whatever solution it chooses will carry major weight--strictly on volume.

Flawed legislation?

Legislation appears to be on the way nonetheless. Section 109 of the proposed Motor Safety Act of 2010--now in front of the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee--includes provisions to require "new electric or hybrid vehicles to provide an alert sound” at less than 20 mph.

There are at least two flaws here. First, the laws don't even try to define the problem--danger from quiet vehicles--objectively, perhaps via perceived decibel levels at specific distances. And, second, it ignores any hazards posed by quiet gasoline cars, by singling out just two types of vehicles (hybrids and electrics) that it deems dangerous.

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Comments (12)
  1. Name a production hybrid that comes with a standard noise generator. Better still, what is the rate of pedestrian fatalities for the decade of Prius in the USA compared to the USA fleet . . . half!
    There are effective accident avoidance systems on the market today but they remain priced or limited to just the highest priced models. Like safety glass, seatbelts, and airbags, these accident avoidance systems are needed at all levels, not just the highest priced models. That is where we will save not only pedestrian but also owner lives.
    Bob Wilson, Huntsville AL

  2. this is not about blind pedestrians. it is about anyone. i am a bicyclist.
    what i would like to see on all cars (gas or electric) is a standard noise. they can easily make it noticeable to pedestrians and bicyclists without making it obtrusive.
    and we dont want a gazillion different possible sounds from each car company. one sound from all car companies, such that it will trigger our brains to let us know there is a car in close vicinity.

  3. if one car company sounds like a bird, and another sounds like a cat, etc - our brains wont be trained to react nearly as quickly.
    if all cars have the exact same sound, then our brains will get trained very quickly - hear that one sound, a car is nearby.

  4. This is a great car, I did a test drive in Seattle. I love the fact that you can run it on melting snow (hydro power). It does need a sound track though.

  5. It's not for the blind people only. I've nearly been mowed down from the back a couple times already by fast moving silent electric cars in parking lots. The drivers appear to be used to pedestrians being able to hear the cars and getting out of the way. They don't seem to recognize the fact that we can't hear electric cars, so if they approach from right behind us, we may not see them until we turn around.

  6. This is bureaucracy at its most flawed: intrusive and without any scientific basis for establishing 1) if a problem really exists (e.g. injury rates for current hybrids in electric-only mode) 2) determining if adding a "noise" would even be effective (degraded by loud city environments, bicyclists/pedestrians wearing iPod headphones. Visually-impaired pedestrians use MANY other cues besides "engine noise" to know when to cross the road [tire noise, cross-walk signals, herd behavior (follow the crowd), canine-assist]
    This will be like the seat-belt buzzers of the 70's: deactivated quickly by the owners, and then relegated to the small list of stupid and intrusive car mods under the "safety" category.
    The laws and engineering that we still have are the ones truly **proven** to save lives and reduce property damage: seatbelt laws (not a vehicle buzzer), airbags, anti-lock breaks, deformation zones, safety glass)]

  7. I vote for a playing card clothes pinned to the wheel rubbing against the spokes.

  8. I vote that all cars play Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" while in motion. The world would become one continuous, never ending Rick Roll.

  9. Philip Dick lives.

  10. Just tell me when we can get seriously better mass transportation (not ones that support the status quo) like and we can make cars the exception, not the rule. I'm tired of paying 56 cents per mile, maintaining a garage and parking, losing friends to accidents or bogus drunk driving charges and paying for endless wars to fuel these plastic, ultra-convenience entitlements that everyone seems to think are necessary. I want a muscle car that I drive 5 times a year and 5 cent/mile automated transport from any block to any other, nationwide. That's all. Savings in the multi-trillions per year!
    (4 tries on the captcha, really???)

  11. why don't they build sensors in around the edge of cars to prevent running into pedestrian. That's better than having a human react to an incoming car with loud sound.

  12. Sorry but if you don't like the way I drive... stay off the sidewalk! :o)

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