Electric Cars to Get “Alert Sounds” for Blind, Elderly, and Child Safety

If you’ve been dreaming of a future in which electric cars move silently about city streets like ghosts on wheels, your fantasy is about to be dashed. Often times cited as one of the best aspects of electric cars, their silence is enticing. But from the perspective of the blind, the elderly and parents of oblivious kids (most of them), that silence is a major safety concern.

This week, in association with representatives of almost every major car manufacturer on the planet, the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind endorsed language that would add an audible alert to any vehicle that makes little to no noise at low speeds, including electric cars and hybrids that shut off engines when coming to a stop.

Last year we heard that Nissan had already begun thinking about the safety issues surrounding electric car silence and would be including “futuristic” sounds on the Nissan LEAF that will turn on automatically at low speeds. We also heard about GM’s attempt to deal with the issue on the Volt by giving the driver the ability to emit a chirping sound to alert pedestrians. Things got weird when we started hearing about companies that were planning on providing downloadable “ringtones” for electric cars. Seriously? I already hate it when I hear a pop music ringtone go off in the movies, can you imagine cars doing the same thing? Please no.

But in all seriousness, it’s a big issue. Which is why the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers have worked closely with the two blind advocacy groups to come up with legislation that can be attached to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 that congress is working to pass by the end of the summer.

Based on the initial wording in the proposed bill, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration would have 18 months from the passage of the bill to start writing rules that would establish “performance requirements for an alert sound that allows blind and other pedestrians to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle operating” at low speeds. The rules would then have to be finalized within 3 years of passage.

The alert sound would be automatic and would not be adjustable by anybody but the manufacturer or a dealer. In addition, all cars of the same make and model would be required to have the same exact sounds within “reasonable manufacturing tolerances.” But in the same paragraph, the bill also directs NHTSA to “allow manufacturers to provide each vehicle with one or more sounds.” So, even though each car would have to have the same set of sounds, they could have a hundred sounds to choose from. I can see the mass cacophony now… and I’m dreading it.

But maybe there’s hope for this after all. In rather vague wording included in the bill the NHTSA is directed to determine what “minimum level of sound” is required to provide sufficient warning as well as what sounds can be recognizable as warning of a car’s approach. In addition, NHTSA is supposed to “consider the overall community noise impact,” whatever that means.

I don’t know, my fantasy of a quiet city without the growl of combustion engines is quickly turning into a bad dream of a mix of Britney Spears, J-Lo, and whatever other musical puke you might mix together as hybrids and electric cars sit at stop signs and meander through parks. I understand the need, but I’m dreading what our capitalistic commercial machine will dole out as an answer.

You can read the joint endorsement letter and check out the draft bill language for yourself on the next page.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.