EV drivers add voices to noise and safety debate


plug-in-series-graphic1 In this story, the first in a multi-part series on the debate over plug-in and hybrid vehicles’ comparative quiet and the potential effect of this on pedestrian and biker safety, SolarChargedDriving.Com spotlights the thoughts and experiences of more than a dozen current EV drivers in the United States on this issue. The installments in the series are:
Part 1: EV drivers add voices to noise and safety debate
Part 2: NFB pushes for constant noise to be added to EVs
Part 3: Pedestrian, bike groups not as loud as NFB on EV noise
Part 4: Big automakers support artificial noise for EVs

Electric vehicles haven’t yet had a chance to take off. But that hasn’t stopped some from already starting to make noise about EV’s comparative lack of noise.

Perhaps the loudest current shouts about EV’s comparative lack of noise amount to a variation on the Harley Davidson mantra ‘loud pipes save lives’.

EV Drivers Talk About Noise

Mike Kobb, Belmont, Calif. Current RAV4 EV drivermikekobbhead2
“Exactly as early ‘horseless carriage’ laws required a man to walk in front of the vehicle waving a red flag, we’ll get (hopefully, temporary) dumb laws that will be passed that will fall by the wayside when people get used to the fact that modern propulsion is quiet.”

J. Marvin Campbell, Culver City, Calif. Current Toyota RAV4 EV driver
“Laws are very likely — because most people are technically illiterate and/or stupid, and we always tend towards solutions that don’t require personal responsibility. Stupid laws for stupid people.”

Darell Dickey, Davis, Calif. Current RAV4 EV driver; Creater & Founder of EVnut.comdarell-dickey
“Gasoline cars are a danger to everybody who breathes. Where is the outrage?”

Greg Brewsaugh, Huntington Beach, Calif. Current RAV4 EV driver
“I do know that when I buy an EV with a noise emitter, I’ll turn to Darell’s (EVNut.com) pages for instructions on how to disable it and add a button for momentary noise.”

Zan Dubin Scott, Santa Monica, Calif. Current Toyota RAV4 EV driver portrait-zan
”EVs absolutely should not be made as noisy as gas cars. The quiet of an EV is such an obvious benefit to society.”

Clint Kennedy, San Jose, Calif., homeowner with solar, future EV-PV driver
“My overall opinion is that we should not have noisemakers except possibly for backing up when the EV driver’s vision is somewhat impaired.”

Victor Munoz, Seattle, Wash. Current Zap Xebra and Zen EV driver
“I log many miles as a pedestrian near busy streets weekly. If someone were concerned about my safety, they might do better to restrict, not the noise vehicles make, but their physical size, speed, and emissions. Diesel exhaust in the face is no fun. Two or three ton steel battering rams don’t leave me much hope in a collision with them. A soft nosed, feather-weight-by-comparison, Zenn does.

Stephen Schleimer, San Jose, Calif. Current RAV4 EV driver
“I am not aware of any incident in which a person was injured by an all-electric vehicle which occurred as a result of the lack of engine noise. However, we have a distorted sense of reality for the most part in which ‘if it could be so, it must be so’ is the governing criterion. Thus, we will most likely end up with laws that require EVs add noise.”

Chad Schwitters, Redmond, Wash. Current Tesla Roadster driver and Toyota Prius PHEV driver
chad-schwitters-head“Taking away one advantage of EVs and adding more noise pollution seems like a really bad idea. And how much do you add? Some gas cars are awfully quiet, and they are trying to get quieter. I don’t think such legislation is likely to pass, especially if automakers fix the only thing that is a problem — alerting pedestrians at low speeds.”

Joe Siudzinski, Los Altos Hills, Calif. Current Corbin Sparrow and Vespa (Scooter) driver
“After all is said and done, it would be nice to have a manually-activated gentle noisemaker to warn pedestrians in parking lots. I’m presently looking for a humorous gadget to do this to complement my brightly-colored, funny-looking electric vehicle.”

According to this view – apparent for instance in the following Gas2.org piece and this UK Guardian story – EVs allegedly pose a greater danger to pedestrians, bikers and the visually impaired than their gas-powered brethren because they’re quieter.

Never mind that at least in the U.S. just one major study — whose authors freely acknowledge its methodogical limitations — has been conducted to (dis)prove this point. Discuss the EV/PHEV noise & safety controversy in our Sun Miles™ Forum. Never mind the fact that there’s tremendous variation in the amount of noise gas-powered vehicles produce. And never mind that no one appears to be asking actual EV drivers what they think about the claim that EVs pose a greater danger to humans on foot or on bike than other cars – that is, until now.


SolarChargedDriving.Com tracked down more than a dozen current EV drivers and asked them for their thoughts about the claim that EVs are more dangerous because they’re quieter.

Near unanimous agreement
What we found was near unanimous agreement:

  1. that EVs are indeed quieter than gas-powered vehicles, though by no means silent;
  2. that this is perfectly OK and, in fact, perfectly desirable – a less noisy modern world is a better world, EV drivers said;
  3. that EVs’ comparative quiet does not pose an unusual safety risk to those outside the vehicle;

In terms of the question of comparative noise levels, Bob Seldon, an Orange County, Calif. resident who’s driven a Toyota RAV4-EV for 10 years, notes that, “At speeds above 10 to15 mph, wind and tire noise sound the same as an ICE (car). Most current ICE vehicles are also very quiet; what you hear when they approach is road noise.”

Below is a YouTube video of the Lotus-Harman Kardon HaloSONIC noise device for EVs/PHEVs and hybrids? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Let us know what you think in our Sun Miles™ Club electronic forum.

Similarly, Chad Schwitters, a Redmond, Wash. resident who drives a Tesla Roadster and a Toyota Prius that he’s had modified into a PHEV, notes that, “EVs are much quieter at very low speeds. But soon the road and wind noise take over.”

Finally, Ed Miller, a Santa Barbara, Calif. resident who’s driven EVs for more than 10 years, notes that, “There is no starter noise, and definitely less noise during hard acceleration. Otherwise, I believe it’s the tailpipe exhaust emission which warns people that a gasoline powered car may be getting ready to move.”

EVs ‘much quieter’
Some representative comments from current EV-ers on what they viewed as the many benefits of a quieter car include this comment from, Darell Dickey, a self-described “EVNut” who’s driven EVs for nine years and who’s created a web site and online community for EV-ers at Evnut.com: “EVs,” he says, “are much quieter – and that’s a huge selling point.”

Mike Kobb, a 10-year EV driving veteran from Belmont, Calif., agrees, noting that, “One of the big pleasures of driving an EV is the peace and quiet.”

derry-kabcanell2Many of the more than a dozen current EV drivers contacted by SolarChargedDriving.Com also felt that – unfortunately, in their view – laws requiring noise-making devices be added to EVs may well be passed in the U.S. and around the world.

If this were to occur, it would be, in the view of most of those contacted, due to two primary reasons:

  1. General ignorance about EVs;
  2. A general societal tendency to take the already familiar path in the assumption that it’s better to err on the side of caution than to risk the “dangers” of the unknown.

“Unfortunately, I have the feeling that making EVs noisy is a legislative foregone conclusion,” says Greg Brewsaugh, a veteran EV driver with two EVs. “The handicapped lobby is powerful, and certainly gets the sympathy vote.”

Paul Scott, a veteran Toyota RAV4 EV driver from Santa Monica, Calif. and Vice President of the non-profit EV advocacy group Plug In America, offered similar sentiments.

“Unfortunately, there is a decent chance some lawmakers will pass such laws because they can’t help but think this will be helpful to the blind,” says Scott. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to help at all and will do more harm than good.

Finally, Derry Kabcenell, who’s driven a Toyota RAV4 EV for more than a decade, suggests that, “The alarmists on the issue will be vocal, and the vast majority of voters, who have no EV experience, won’t really know whether it’s an issue or not — it sounds kind of plausible — and therefore will decide it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Society will adjust to an EV world
While mandatory added noise seems likely, several of the EV-ers contacted for this story also say that it’s also likely that some of the mandatory added noise will be rolled back down the road.

“Perhaps at some time in the future, when most cars on the road are EVs, legislation will be proposed to remove noise makers from existing EVs and stop equipping new EVs with these noise emitters,” suggests Brewsaugh. “Then tire, air flow, children’s laughter and chirping bird sounds will dominate.”

Miller agrees, noting that should laws requiring the addition of gas-powered-car-like noises be passed that “they will be repealed once EV’s become a mainstream part of our transportation system”.

We have too much noise pollution as it is, and I definitely object to adding a significant noisemaker to my EV.
–Joe Siudzinski,EV driver from Los Altos Hills, Calif.

Laws requiring the installation of artificial noise making devices for EVs would be especially misguided if they required noise making devices which essentially mimic the current noises and noise levels produced by gas-powered cars, say most of the 14 current EV drivers contacted by SolarChargedDriving.Com.

Stephen Schleimer, who’s driven an EV since 1999, and who currently drives a Toyota RAV4-EV to commute in the San Jose, Calif. area, was one of those who spoke out against laws mandating EVs to be essentially as loud as gas-powered cars.

Gas cars are getting quieter
“There’s no particular reason to think that an electric car is more or less likely to harm a person walking along the street than a gas vehicle,” says Schleimer. “Cars approaching from the rear of a person are making many kinds of noise — not only engine noise. Modern automobiles are very quiet, whether gas or electric. It’s the concern of the driver for the safety of the people around him/he which determines the safety of the interaction, not the noise the car makes.”

j-marvin-campbell2Joe Siudzinski, a long-time EV driver from Los Altos Hills, Calif., notes that, “Modern cars are pretty quiet too. We have too much noise pollution as it is, and I definitely object to adding a significant noisemaker to my EV. For parking lots something akin to a bicycle bell (manually activated when needed) would be okay. Noise it not a problem at speed as the vehicle makes sufficient road noise to be noticed.”

Victor Munoz, who’s driven an EV for nearly two decades in the Seattle area points out that all of the noise about EVs comparative lack of noise posing a potentially safety hazard is based on dominant — and largely un-studied — assumptions about current cars and traffic noise.

“The issue itself is a red herring,” notes Munoz. “If there were actual large scale studies showing that quiet cars lead to more accidents, I might listen. But where is one going to find large concentrations of EVS today? This is pure distraction from real urban transportation issues.”

A recently released National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study that examined the question of hybrids and pedestrian safety did find that hybrids hit pedestrians at a higher rate than other vehicles. However, the study is the only one of its kind and has multiple methodological holes. Most notable among these: While data for gas-powered vehicles came from 600,000 vehicles in all 50 U.S. states, for hybrids data came from just 8,000 vehicles in 12 states.

Indeed, the report directly acknowledges its own limitations on the very first page.

In fact, the NHTSA study might be the primary reason that so much attention is now being paid to the question of EVs lack of noise and pedestrian safety issues. For example, the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) has used the report in pushing for laws in the U.S. requiring noise-making devices be added to hybrids, EVs and PHEVs. However, it’s unclear exactly what type of noise and how loud a noise-making device NFB is hoping for. (SolarChargedDriving.Com will examine this angle and perspective in a future story).

No to adding ‘noise pollution’ to EVs
In contrast to conventional wisdom about car noise, several current EV drivers suggested that it is in fact high ambient noise levels of gas-powered cars which often pose the real danger. This is because when there is too much noise, it is difficult to hear and differentiate between individual sounds.

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“Adding noise pollution is heading the wrong direction,” says Dickey, an avid bicyclist who bikes more than 10,000 miles a year. “Effort should be put into taking the loud cars off the road. Then we could hear the quiet cars and the cyclists and pedestrians more easily. By making all cars quiet, we would be safer than by making quiet cars louder.”

Many of the EV drivers also predict that as more and more EVs find their way onto the road, the general public will learn to approach pedestrian and biker-car interaction differently.

Current EV drivers suggest that rather than adding roaring engine and exhaust system noises to EVs, a more reasonable approach would be to install the same type of alert system that came with the now defunct GM EV1, which had a special pedestrian alert horn that could be used by drivers in slow-speed situations.

Adding noise pollution is heading the wrong direction. Effort should be put into taking the loud cars off the road. Then we could hear the quiet cars and the cyclists and pedestrians more easily. By making all cars quiet, we would be safer than by making quiet cars louder.
–Darell Dickey, RAV4 EV driver from Davis, Calif.

Chelsea Sexton, a former EV1 driver and long-time EV advocate perhaps best known for her starring role in the now cult-classic documentary film ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’, is among those EV-ers who have recently begun to challenge the rising tide of discourse that alleges EVs comparative lack of noise poses safety problems.

In a recent entry on her blog “evchels”, Sexton suggests a tempered approach to adding noise to EVs:

“Last week, GM unveiled their approach with the Volt (EV1 drivers will find it very familiar), which is an active, driver-engaged system making the car louder in the moment it would be helpful, not all the time. I hope more automakers, organizations and individuals speak out in this direction, given that the alternative currently proposed is minimum noise all the time.”

Tom Dowling, a veteran EV driver from Folsom, Calif. who’s created what might well be the world’s most extensive online map of EV-charging stations, agrees.

“A passive system requirement would be OK,” he says.”Active, absolutely not. The EV1 and the Volt have a great passive system, activated by the headlight flashing position of the turn signal lever. That’s a great system. It allows you to make a little bit of non-startling noise when appropriate, without unnecessary constant noise.”

Most of safety burden should be on drivers
In the end, say many of the EV drivers contacted, a strong case can be made for much of the burden of safety to be placed squarely on the shoulders — or, really — in the hands of individual drivers, no matter what vehicle they are driving, whether it is a thundering pick-up truck or a comparatively quiet Honda Fit.

“Ultimately,” says Dickey, “it is the driver’s responsibility to operate any vehicle safely.”

Multiple factors affect pedestrian safety – which, as a recent study by the transportation safety advocacy coalition Transportation For America underscores, is a very serious issue in the age of loud, gas-powered automobiles. Among these are driver safety practices and, something which typically gets little mention – traffic design and urban design.

tom-vera-dowling2Indeed, some have suggested that the comparative lack of noise of EVs is a much less significant safety factor than either poor driving practices or urban and suburban planning approaches which, until very recently have placed America’s – and the world’s – love affair with cars first, and pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. a distant second.

Of course, that doesn’t mean average people — most of whom at this point in time don’t even know what an EV is — are necessarily likely to weigh emotional appeals to pedestrian safety against the backdrop of individual driver responsibility and general urban and traffic design.

“I’ve heard no one outside the EV community object to making EVs more audible,” notes long-timer EV-er Norm Rhett, of Danville, Calif.

This might not bode well for those who would like to see an EV revolution usher in an era of quieter urban and suburban living.

On the other hand, EVs are such a new — and, at least for now — limited phenomenon that it’s difficult to gauge if Rhett is correct in asserting that EV-ers may be alone in their opposition to requiring artificial noise-devices mimicking current gas-powered cars be added to EVs.

Most respondents to UK Guardian article say no to making EVs noisy
Indeed, there is some evidence to the contrary in the posts — more than 70 of them — in response to a recent UK Guardian story – “Now you can hear electric cars coming” — which trumpets the “necessity” of adding conventional gas-powered noises to EVs.

A large proportion of these comments are quite critical of the Lotus and Harman-Kardon noise-making device, the HaloSONIC, which this Guardian piece touts. Many, it would seem, are fed up with the noise of modern industrial life and would welcome an EV revolution which would ratchet down general noise levels.

I’ve heard no one outside the EV community object to making EVs more audible.
–Norm Rhett, EV driver from San Ramon, Calif.

And if the sentiments of the posters to this UK Guardian story on the HaloSONIC are representative of general public opinion in places like the UK and the United States, those who predict a legislative stampede to add gas-powered-car-like noises to EVs premised on emotional calls to safety might turn out to be pleasantly surprised.

It could be that a majority, potentially a very large majority, will embrace less traffic noise, quieter driving and pedestrian experiences and the generally less stressful modern everyday existence that studies have shown lower noise levels mean for human beings. It may also be that this group will resist if efforts are made to legally require EVs to be essentially as loud as their gas-powered brethren.

Additional links

(SolarChargedDriving.Com would like to thank the many EV-ers who agreed to be interviewed for this story and, especially, “EVnut” Darell Dickey, for helping us find the EV-ers whose comments we’ve put together in this story, and Chad Schwitters, who took the photo at the very top of this story)

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