Brent Morrison was recently walking through a Safeway parking lot in Calgary, unaware that a Tesla electric vehicle was silently “stalking” him, until he happened to turn and notice.
“Scared the crap out of me,” says Morrison, a graphic designer in Calgary. "And I felt bad for being in the way.”
Morrison’s experience is far from unique as more electric vehicles appear on our roads. Canada is about to experience a new Quiet Revolution, as EVs gradually sneak under the cover of silence into our urban environments. With this emerging trend comes a sense of relief as we leave behind the muffled roar of internal combustion engines (ICE) under acceleration.
But this superquiet era also introduces new dangers for pedestrians – especially those who are visually impaired – who rely on aural cues to sense approaching vehicles. The silent car “menace,” as one British newspaper described it, has jurisdictions around the world either taking action or motivated to do so.
When hybrids began to appear on the market about 10 years ago, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found these new vehicles were 35-per-cent more likely to be involved in a pedestrian accident than ICE-powered cars. Hybrids, under battery power, were also 57-per-cent more likely to be involved in accidents involving bicycles. In response, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 2010 instructing the NHTSA to mandate that EVs emit noise.
However, it will 10 years from that order by the time the regulation comes into effect. By September, 2020, the NHTSA will require all EVs and hybrids to emit a sound when travelling less than 30 kilometres an hour. Wind and tire noise above that speed make artificial noise unnecessary, it concluded.
Canada appears to be taking even longer to impose a similar regulation. Transport Canada declined an interview with The Globe and Mail, instead providing a statement saying it had conducted public consultations on the issue in 2018 and provided “extensive research” for the NHTSA.
Transport Canadaʼs website says regulations have been proposed that would “align with requirements in Europe and the United States.” However, work on the amendment has been “temporarily paused” while the department awaits the possible development by the United Nations of a global technical requirement. The UN group, however, hasn’t met since May, 2018.
Consultation? There hasnʼt been much. The departmentʼs Let’s Talk consultation portal received just three public comments before the topic was closed. One respondent, Tim Chelli, argued that noise standards should be set to retain harmony with the United States, to ensure the safety of those with a visual impairment.
Not requiring some sounds from EVs unnecessarily puts impaired individualsʼ lives at risk, Chelli said. “Sure we love environmentally clean vehicles, but I don’t remember saying I wanted stealth vehicles.”
Transport Canada’s research on the subject comprises a “sound test data” report, which it shared with the NHTSA as a contribution to work that led to the U.S. regulations. It was filed in September, 2013.
The Transport Canada website predicts new regulations will be published in part one of the Canada Gazette “in early 2020.” Any potential regulatory change would be subject to a formal consultation process of 75 days following publication in the Gazette.
Historically, quieter cars have generally been viewed as a benefit. When the Ford Escape Hybrid was introduced in 2008, for example, a commercial depicted a delighted family sneaking up on deer in a forest. The promise of cars powered by electricity was that they would quite literally get us closer to nature.
I experienced the quiet relief of electric cars during the annual Automotive Journalists Association of Canada EcoRun, held in Alberta in June. I tested the Hyundai Kona and Chevy Bolt battery-electric vehicles, the Hyundai Nexo hydrogen fuel-cell electric and the plug-in hybrids Volvo XC90 T8 and Mitsubishi Eclipse. It is an eerie feeling to sit at a stop light in a car thatʼs making no noise at all.
Many manufacturers have built their brand around sound, including the Detroit Three with muscle cars such as the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger; German-based automakers such as Porsche and Mercedes AMG; and exotic brands such as Lamborghini and Ferrari. Motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson actually patented its low “potato-potato-potato” engine rumble in its ICE bikes. And Harley riders are notorious for modifying their bike’s exhaust, arguing they need to make a lot of noise so drivers notice them.
When Harley introduced the LiveWire BEV this year, the company made much of the fact that it had engineered a whine with a progressive pitch to enhance the rider experience. Some EV cars, including the Mitsubishi electric i-Miev, Jaguar iPace and Kona electric, also have engineered sound – an artificial hum at lower speeds.
Hyundai equips its Sonata PHEV, the Ioniq hybrid, and Kona EV with what it calls the Virtual Engine Sound System. As with most such systems, the sound is broadcast from a speaker mounted just behind and above the front bumper of the vehicle.
In response to requests from automakers, the NHTSA proposed in September that U.S. drivers be able to select an electric-car alert sound, and has invited public comment. The NHTSA stated it wants the public’s opinion on “whether there should be a limit to the number of compliant sounds that a manufacturer can install in a vehicle and what that limit should be.”
Artificial engine sounds available on existing models, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, generally make the hum of the battery-driven engine louder.
Mercedes AMG is working with rock band Linkin Park to make distinctive sounds for its electric vehicles, but has not yet revealed a sound sample. Porsche offers an optional upgrade to its Taycan sports car that boosts the volume of its electric motor to make it sound more like a gasoline engine.
Nissan is getting consumer feedback on its Canto warning system that adds a choral element to the engine’s quiet whirr. You can hear the sound here.
For safetyʼs sake, the early promise of silent EVs must go unfulfilled. But they were never going to eliminate the din of downtown Manhattan, Toronto or Vancouver, where much of the traffic noise comes from the honking of horns and wailing of sirens. For that, you’ll still need Hush City, an open-source app that is crowdsourcing quiet corners of cities around the world.
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