“Quiet Car” rule will require all electric vehicles to make noise, so pedestrians can better hear and avoid them. CNET.com reports on the long-awaited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rule requiring auto manufacturers to add waterproof, temperature resistant sound generators to hybrid and electric vehicles sold after September 1, 2019. Referred to as vehicle warning sounds, the sound will be automatically activated when a car travels at speeds below 18.6 miles per hour.
Electric and hybrid cars are noticeably quieter than cars powered by an internal combustion engine. This fact drew the attention of advocates for the blind and visually impaired a decade ago, ultimately leading to the passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010. The PSEA is intended to reduce the risk of harm to blind and visually impaired pedestrians, as well as cyclists, or anyone unable to hear the very quiet approach of these cars, by requiring electric and hybrid cars to emit a minimum added sound. The issue regarding this requirement is complex and contentious, and it has generated a lot of research and extended discourse both for and against added sound. Many electric and hybrid cars have used added sound for years; samples of some sounds can be found online.
A significant concern is that some automakers see the need to comply with the rule as an opportunity to invent branded sounds, while critics of branded sounds would prefer sounds as similar as possible to a vehicle engine, noting that discordant or unusual sounds could actually create confusion. In addition, environmental advocates and soundscape preservationists have expressed concern about adding more noise to an overburdened soundscape.
One problem with reaching a sensible solution is that the instructional videos produced by industry tend to show cars and pedestrians interacting in open spaces, but real world experiences are more likely to occur in busy parking lots or residential streets. Measures such as traffic calming and slow zones could result in a growing number of areas where driving below 20 miles per hour would be the norm in order to improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. One thing is clear, vehicle engineers must incorporate these details into the planning of current and future warning sounds.
Asked about branded sound design, Jeanine Botta, who runs the Green Car Integrity Project blog, said that she hopes sound designers will follow the rule’s requirement that sound be recognizable as a motor vehicle in operation, and let go of branding concepts. “Our attention is already stretched to its maximum potential. No pedestrian – or cyclist or motorist – should have to quickly process and interpret any sound, especially one intended for safety. If a sound is the least bit discordant, it runs the risk of being misinterpreted and ignored.”
Automotive product developers considering new and improved added quiet car sound should include industry outsiders in the research and development process. Consultation with environmental psychologists, environmental health researchers, acoustic ecologists, and soundscape preservationists would be a step in the right direction.