Electric cars and hybrids are set to be required by law to make a humming noise when travelling at low speeds – to prevent deaths and injuries of elderly or vision impaired pedestrians in shopping centres and car parks.
In a landmark submission filed overnight the peak road safety authority in North America recommended external speakers become compulsory on all electric vehicles and hybrids from 2016.
Currently, the only sound from cars running on electric power is the almost-silent rolling of the tyres. Some cars, such as the Nissan Leaf electric car, already make a deliberate hi-tech hum below 30km/h – but the noise can be disabled by the driver at the press of a button on the dash.
Toyota began fitting outside speakers to the Prius hybrid in North America last year – but they’re yet to be fitted to models sold in Australia.
“It’s something we’re looking at seriously,” said Toyota Australia spokesman Mike Breen. “We’ve had some calls from various agencies who’ve expressed concern about [hybrid] cars being heard by people with limited sight. We are working with Toyota Japan to find what would best suit conditions in Australia.”
Toyota has sold more than 10,000 hybrid cars in Australia over the past 10 years but says it is yet to receive a report of someone being knocked over by one of its petrol-electric vehicles while in silent mode.
The Holden Volt plug-in hybrid car doesn’t have a hum – but it does have what the company calls a “polite” horn. If you tap the button, it gives a short toot at half the normal volume to let others know you’re nearby.
“If [external noise] were mandated in North America, the technology would likely make its way onto cars here,” said Holden spokesman Craig Cheetham.
Vision Australia said electric cars were a danger to blind people and the visually impaired and has called for “urgent action”.
“It’s a significant safety problem,” said Vision Australia spokeswoman Megan Bishop. “Environmental sound is critically important for people who are blind or vision impaired.
“Sound is an essential aid to independent mobility and safety. People have a fundamental right to travel independently as pedestrians.”
In the US, Congress ordered an investigation into the dangers caused by silent electric cars three years ago. It is likely to become an increasing concern as the population ages.
The latest report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates external speakers would prevent 2800 injuries a year and add $30 to the cost of each electric car.
The safety body said it would allow car manufacturers the freedom to choose their own sounds.
“Our proposal would allow manufacturers the flexibility to design different sounds for different makes and models while still providing an opportunity for pedestrians, bicyclists and the visually impaired to detect and recognise a vehicle,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a statement.
In the US, the public will be given 60 days to comment on the proposed regulations, which will apply to electric cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling