Some who are new to electric cars might be a little tickled at first to hear their vehicle making space-age lightsaber sounds—a safety feature in the interest of making sure the blind and pedestrians don’t miss your vehicle approaching. 

The delight surrounding what’s initially perceived as something fun can quickly turn to dismay when owners realize that they can’t turn it off—or that they’ll be stuck with that sound driving up to the valet, or through the parking building with an important client.

So there’s good news: You’ll soon have choices in the electric sound your car will make. 

NHTSA is recommending amending existing rules to allow “up to five sounds per operating condition”—resulting not just in more flexibility for driver preference but also how dramatically these sounds could change with speed. 

Distracted pedestrian, walking and texting

Distracted pedestrian, walking and texting

Currently manufacturers are limited to choose one sound per vehicle model, model year, body type, and trim level. That sound may vary based on defined operating conditions, which are stationary, reverse, and then 10 km/h, 20 km/h, and 30 km/h forward speeds. 

At the various forward speed thresholds, the supplemental noise can be phased out if there’s adequate noise from aspects such as tires, motors, or battery cooling. The proposal also includes a technical clarification to the way the ambient noise would be measured for compliance—an issue that could have led to some of the noisemakers being quieter than they were intended to be.

The proposed rulemaking would amend FMVSS 141, which was made a final rule in December 2016, with implementation details not finalized until February 2018, after a delay by the incoming Trump administration. The rules required the systems to be in 50 percent of vehicles with low-speed electric-only operation by September 1, 2019 and 100 percent of them by September 1, 2020. 

It’s the result of a joint petition filed in January 2017 by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Auto Alliance) and Global Automakers, the two major industry groups representing major automakers in the U.S. They presented the idea of several possible alert sounds as important for consumer acceptance. 

“The agency believes that allowing for an additional number of sounds will have no effect on safety, since all sounds would still need to comply with the standard,” stated NHTSA in the proposed rule published Tuesday

“The proposed rule provides manufacturers with more flexibility and options in developing and installing sounds for their hybrid and electric vehicles.”

Lotus Safe & Sound noisemaker

Lotus Safe & Sound noisemaker

What began within NHTSA in 2011, urged by Congress in 2010, became a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2013 and was finalized in 2016. 

The rules require one or more audio speakers (generally at one side of the grille or lower air intake), amplifiers, a control module, and software. NHTSA expects the rules to cost the industry about $40 million annually—or, based on an estimated 530,000 vehicles to get the systems in 2020, about $75 per vehicle.  

The change is up for public comment, but the agency says that comments must be received by November 1, 2019.