Why the sound of silence is coming to the electric car

The near-silence of electric cars is viewed as one of the key selling points of electric mobility. Without the noise and vibration of a conventional engine, you’re free to enjoy a quieter drive, in and out of the city.

But are electric cars too quiet? There are concerns that silent running makes them a hazard to pedestrians because they cannot be heard as they approach.

A study commissioned by Guide Dogs found that hybrid and electric vehicles are 40 percent more likely to collide with pedestrians than cars with a regular combustion engine. There was also a 54 percent increase in accidents where pedestrians were injured by quiet vehicles from 2012 to 2013.

In 2019, Debra Roffey from Devon was narrowly saved from being hit by an electric car after her guide dog failed to recognise the vehicle on the seafront in Paignton. Mrs Roffey said: “Electric cars are silent killers. A passer-by grabbed me and Crystal [the guide dog] out of the way.

“There was no warning. There was no noise and no fumes from an exhaust, so Crystal didn’t pick up on the fact there was a car behind us on the seafront pathway. We could have been seriously injured or worse.”

Electric car noise legislation

Renault Zoe in the city

A change is coming. From 1 July 2019, all manufacturers have been required to fit an Audible Vehicle Alert System (AVAS) to new electric cars to prevent them being too silent.

Vehicles must produce a sound when they are reversing or driving below 20kph (12mph), in an attempt to improve pedestrian safety in urban environments. The change will also apply to new hybrid vehicles registered from July 2021.

Michael Ellis, roads minister, said: “The government wants the benefit of green transport to be felt by everyone, and understands the concerns of the visually impaired about the possible hazards posed by quiet electric vehicles.

“This new requirement will give pedestrians added confidence when crossing the road.”

The move is welcomed by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), but the charity says that questions still remain. First, will the driver be able to deactivate the AVAS? Second, what about the 1.35 million electric cars already on the roads of Europe?

Some electric cars have featured an audible warning system for years. For example, the Renault Zoe is equipped with ‘ZE Voice’, which is active at speeds up to 18mph, with the frequency of the noise changing according to the speed of the car.

Crucially, the noise can be switched off – which is something the RNIB wants to stop.

Experimental noise

The legislation provides manufacturers with the opportunity to experiment with different sounds. BMW has turned to legendary composer Hans Zimmer for help adding sound to its new electric and hybrid vehicles.

Premiered on the Concept i4, BMW IconicSound Electric ‘will imbue BMW’s electric models with extra emotional depth by connecting the driver with the vehicle’s character on another level through individual tones and sounds’.

BMW Concept i4

Meanwhile, under the direction of acoustics expert Rudolf Halbmeir, Audi has developed a range of sounds for its E-tron electric vehicles. Halbmeir said: “AVAS is primarily about warning pedestrians.

“Every child knows what a car sounds like, so the current legislative proposal intends for the sound to be oriented to what people are accustomed to. The challenge is to also make a premium experience possible for the customer. The sound should have a high-quality feel to it, and to achieve that, the quality of the components has to be right, of course.”

One thing’s for certain, we’ll have to get used to a range of different noises in our zero emission urban centres – and that’s not just the sound of birdsong and chatter. Electric cars will deliver a cacophony of noise, creating an entirely new aural landscape.

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