EU rules may mean silent electric cars must make Star Wars noises
The vision of tranquil modern cities, with inhabitants gliding by silently in electric cars, may be shattered by European plans to introduce artificial warning sounds to the new generation of zero-emission vehicles.
Each manufacturer may be permitted to provide its own “signature tune”, with the regulation simply setting a minimum volume to prevent pedestrians, cyclists and especially blind people from stepping into the path of battery-powered cars.
Some manufacturers are likely to opt for an engine noise while others are considering adopting the noises of spacecraft from science fiction films, such as the podracers from Star Wars.
To minimise disturbance, the noise will be projected in the direction in which the vehicle is travelling. Lotus, which is developing electric and hybrid models, has adapted sound-cancelling technology to project a sound that changes with the speed.
The industry believes an artificial sound is likely to be needed only at speeds below 20mph because above that all vehicles create enough tyre noise to be heard.
Testing of various sounds begins this month at Warwick University, which is working with several electric-vehicle manufacturers in the West Midlands.
A test vehicle will project a different sound each week and assess the response of pedestrians.
Paul Jennings said: “We will have a week with music and weeks with natural sounds, engine noise and also with science-fiction sounds.
“We need to find noises which alert people to the approaching vehicle without causing the annoyance people already feel when they hear the bleeping sounds of reversing trucks.”
Professor Jennings said it was possible that pedestrians would learn to look out for silent cars and that the warning sounds would become redundant. But he said people were far more dependent on detecting noise than they realised when crossing the road.
“They think they are reacting to the sight of a vehicle but often it is the sound that is triggering their attention. Sound also tells you whether the vehicle is accelerating or decelerating.”
He said there was a commercial opportunity for car brands to become associated with particular sounds. However, it would defeat the object if the pedestrian mistook the sound for something harmless.
Neil Butcher, who is leading a Government-sponsored trial of more than 100 electric vehicles in the West Midlands, said it would be better to educate people to be more vigilant than to add an artificial noise.
David Jackson, electric-vehicle project manager for Nissan UK, said one of the most attractive features of electric cars was the silence, especially inside the vehicle.
“We could fire the noise in an outwards direction so that inside it will remain quiet.” He said Nissan had yet to decide what type of sound it would use, if required, in its Leaf, a five-seat electric car that will go on sale in Britain in March next year.
Among the options were “white noise, computer noise or Star Wars noise” – but not the throaty roar of a powerful engine.
The Department for Transport could not say when the results of research it is conducting into the risks posed by the quietness of electric vehicles would be available.
The European Commission said last week it would “consider whether the quietness of these vehicles is potentially dangerous to vulnerable road users by 2012”.
From January, Government grants of up to £5,000 towards the purchase of an electric car will be available.
London, Milton Keynes and the North East will receive £8 million towards 11,000 charging points by the end of 2013, in car parks at locations such as stations and supermarkets.
There is a long history of artificial sounds, smells and colours being added to products to make them safer or more attractive:
• An unpleasant odour has been added to natural gas since 300 children died in 1937 after a leak at a Texas school went unnoticed
• Digital cameras make the sound of a shutter closing to reassure users
• Cash machines whirr to convince us that our money is on its way
• Manufacturers use dye to make strawberry ice-cream pink, ketchup red and squash orange
May 4, 2010
Ben Webster, Environment Editor
Source: The Times