It appears that most major automakers and advocates for the blind are coming together over a national standard that would require adding an automatic artificial noise to electric vehicles.
Automakers yesterday announced their support of legislation aimed at maintaining the mobility and independence of the blind around ever-quieter autos, by requiring a vehicle sound to assist the blind in detecting nearby hybrid or electric autos. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Chrysler, Ford, GM, Mazda, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among others, joined the National Federation of the Blind, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers and the American Council of the Blind in signing a letter of support for legislation that would also consider “the overall community noise impact,” by taking into account all stakeholders’ concerns over general noise levels.
“Good policy is a collaborative effort, and this is a good approach for pedestrians and automakers,” said Alliance President and CEO Dave McCurdy. “This encourages an innovative solution.”
“The National Federation of the Blind commends the automobile industry for its leadership on this issue and for its genuine concern for the safety of blind Americans, cyclists, runners, small children, and other pedestrians,” said National Federation of the Blind President Dr. Marc Maurer. “We look forward to working with the parties to this agreement.”
The language is expected to be offered as an amendment to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, currently under consideration by Congress and proposes that, within 18 months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) begin crafting standards for an alert sound that allows the blind and other pedestrians to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle. The rule must then be finalized within three years.
According to the Detroit News, artificial sounds would be automatically activated and motorists would not be allowed to deactivate the sounds.
The letter, signed by the four groups, says the amendment “will help to ensure the safety of pedestrians, especially those who are blind, as an increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicles are sold and manufactured in the United States.”
Automakers have been looking at EV noise issue for awhile
Regardless of the fate of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act – which must be approved by Congress before the automatic noise standards proposed by the various auto alliances and advocates for the blind become law — the question of EV noise and safety is one that EV makers have been examining for awhile.
Some companies, most notably, GM, have been long planning on adding artificial sounds to their vehicles. However, some – Tesla Motors, for example – have been resistant to doing this, citing, among other things, the negative health consequences of traffic and urban noise as well as the social advantages of quieter urban living conditions.
The luxury EV manufacturer Fisker is planning on adding artificial noise to its plug-in hybrid, the Karma, which has been set for release in September of this year. This noise would both alert pedestrians and give the vehicle a distinct sound that it hopes will reflect the car’s technology and style, said Fisker spokesperson Russell Datz.
The sound added to the Karma will not be similar to an internal combustion engine. The company does not want to reflect any of the technology currently on the market, he said.
“The sound will be between a jet fighter and a Formula One car,” said Datz, “It will reflect the futuristic technology that’s in the car.”
The company has not disclosed at what decibel level the sound will be. It will be most apparent at lower speeds, with wind and tire noise being louder than the added noise at high speeds, said Datz.
Without any added noise, EVs have a distinctly different sound characteristic than gas-powered cars. Though the EV motor is quiet, it is not silent, said Datz.
Pedestrian safety is very important to Fisker and the company recognizes that the blind are concerned about EVs’ comparative lack of noise, Datz added.
Fisker has been invited by the California Council for the Blind to participate in research studying the effects of EV noise on the safety of blind pedestrians, said Datz.
The company is not aware of any study data out right now proving the effect of quiet EV engines on pedestrian safety, he said.
The company would act accordingly based on legislative measures passed by Congress or data proving a safety impact of quiet EVs on pedestrians, he said.
“We will obviously do whatever is required by law and what’s best for pedestrian safety,” said Datz.
Toyota researching specific solutions to noise-safety issue
Toyota has also been studying the possible effects its quiet hybrids may have on pedestrians.
Toyota makes the hybrid Prius, a hybrid version of the Camry and a hybrid version of the Highlander SUV.
The sound will be between a jet fighter and a Formula One car. It will reflect the futuristic technology that’s in the car.
–Russell Datz, spokesman for Fisker speaking about the Fisker Karma PHEV
The company is in the research and debate mode right now, said spokesman Brian Lyons.
It is also working with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the mobility engineering organization SAE International to research the issue, he said.
He is not sure how far out the research is from being conclusive.
The type of sound and the level of sound that would be emitted is part of the research, he said, and he is not sure how it will be handled yet.
Toyota is not yet sure if a potential noise would be similar to that of a gas-powered engine, if it would be constant, and at which speeds it would be emitted, said Lyons.
Lyons said has not heard of any concerns from blind or sighted pedestrians or bicyclists that have come directly to Toyota; he has only heard those that have come through the NFB and SAE.
He added that he is not aware of any accidents involving hybrids or EVs and pedestrians outside of the cases presented by the NFB, he said.
GM has also been researching EV-noise issue
Like Toyota, General Motors is researching the level and type of sound most appropriate to add to its EV, the Chevy Volt, set to begin rolling off the production lines this year.
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It announced a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind in 2009 to research the level of sound necessary for blind pedestrians to feel safe moving around in traffic with EVs and PHEVs.
The sound would be automotive in nature, friendly and not startling, Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, told USA Today.
Unlike the other manufacturers, who are either in favor of adding noise or are considering it, Tesla Motors is against adding artificial noise to its EVs.
Tesla’s customers say the quiet of the company’s luxury sport vehicles is one of their most appealing aspects, Tesla spokeswoman Rachel Konrad has told the Washington Post.
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