In recent years, electric vehicles (EVs) have made a strong case for being the future of transportation.
Be it passenger cars, public and commercial transport or the burgeoning autonomous vehicle sector, EVs are becoming increasingly important to major automotive brands. The number we see on the roads is growing and will only continue to do so in the coming years.
Little needs to be said about the environmental aspect of this debate, but suffice it to say that rechargeable electric power is considered a much more sustainable way of getting us from A to B than the internal combustion engine.
Among their other desirable attributes, EVs also produce considerably less sound than their predecessors. Noise pollution is greatly reduced, with EVs running almost silently at low speeds. Electric motors do produce some sound once a normal road speed is reached, though even this pales in compassion to what we have grown used to from internal combustion engines.
Quiet cars sound good, right? Actually, this is a double-edged sword.
NO NOISE, NO WARNING
Every major city is soundtracked by a cacophony of background noise. Traffic, urban trains and seemingly never-ending roadworks all combine to produce what you might call an almighty racket.
Amid this, the low hum of an electric vehicle can disappear – particularly at the aforementioned low speeds.
One of the unintended consequences of the noise produced by petrol and diesel engines is that it acts as a warning to other road users and pedestrians; an unintended consequence of the much quieter electric engine is that it does not provide any such a warning.
One group with particular concerns about this is the charity Guide Dogs, which helps blind and partially sighted people across the UK. In a 2015 study, they found that pedestrians are 40 percent more likely to be hit by a hybrid or electric car than by one with a petrol or diesel engine.
Beyond the means by which they are powered, EVs are broadly similar to cars that use an internal combustion engine, so we can assume that the 40 percent difference is largely – if not entirely – a result of their quiet-running.
This comes at a time when the use of electric vehicles is rising dramatically. Just 3,500 were registered in 2013, but that number has now ballooned to 140,000. Further rapid growth is expected and, within a decade, we should be talking about millions of EVs on our roads.
Among others, this is worrying for those who are hard of hearing and particularly for persons who are partially sighted or blind.
In a statement last year, Richard Holmes from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) said that it is “essential that silent vehicles make a noise” that is set “at a level easily heard.” He added that “this must be something which is fitted and cannot be removed or switched off, thus defeating the whole point of the adaptation.”
From a safety standpoint, then, there seems to be little debate: EVs needs something to make their presence known on the road.
LEGISLATION STILL CATCHING UP
As with other relatively new phenomena, EVs have developed at a speed that lawmakers are struggling to keep pace with.
Legislation is catching up, however, and new laws will soon mean that future electric and hybrid cars will have to be fitted with devices to alert pedestrians and fellow road users to their presence.
The legislation – which has been formulated but not yet signed off – will mandate that new-model EVs and hybrids vehicles sold in Europe must make a noise by 2019, while all electric and hybrid cars must be audible by 2021.
What’s more, this will not be something that users can switch on and off at their own choosing. In Japan, a guide dog and its owner were killed after being hit by an EV whose driver had deactivated the sound; this will not be allowed by the new European laws.
Just what this should sound like is a whole other area for debate. Some favour a form of white noise – think TV static – while others prefer a tonal sound that more closely resembles the existing internal combustion engine.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it must be agreed that arguing over what sound electric vehicles should make is the stuff of low-budget sixties sci-fi.
INEVITABLE TEETHING TROUBLES
As with many issues related to EVs, the sound that vehicles make is a problem that must be solved on the fly. That they might be too quiet for safe use is something that cannot be discovered until there are a sufficient number on the road.
It is unlikely, then, that this will be the final kink that needs to be ironed out. As the numbers grow ever further, new problems will arise that need to be solved with the vehicles already on our streets and in our garages. The internal combustion engine went through the same process, albeit in a very different media age to the one we live in now.
Ultimately, it is proof of their growing popularity that EVs now require such attention from legislators, as well as car makers and consumers.