By David Shepardson
The Detroit News
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing new rules to require minimum sound levels from electric vehicles, hybrids and other quiet cars to warn pedestrians.
NHTSA’s proposal — required by Congress in 2010 — sets minimum sound levels for hybrid and electric vehicles to help make all pedestrians, especially visually impaired people, aware of approaching vehicles.
Electric and hybrid vehicles do not rely on traditional engines and at low speeds can be very difficult to hear.
NHTSA plans to phase in the new rules starting in the 2016 model year over three years. It expects the proposal will cost the auto industry about $23 million during the first year.
NHTSA estimates the cost of adding a speaker system to comply with the requirements to be around $35 per vehicle.
The new rules would also apply to electric motorcycles and heavy-duty vehicles – despite the opposition of BMW to the motorcycle requirement.
But the rules would not apply to quiet traditional internal combustion engines or those equipped with “stop-start” fuel-saving technology that shuts off the motor at intersections. NHTSA said it may in the future opt to require sounds in those vehicles.
NHTSA estimates the odds of a hybrid vehicle being involved in a pedestrian crash is 19 percent higher compared with traditional gas- or diesel-powered vehicles. For a bicycle crash, it’s 38 percent higher.
“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 recognize a vehicle and make a decision about whether it is safe to cross the street,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.
The sounds would need to be detectable under a wide range of street noises and other ambient background sounds when the vehicle is traveling less than 18 mph.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others — praised the flexibility in the rule, but is still reviewing it.
“We understand that the proposal allows for some flexibilities in the specifics of the simulated sound autos will produce, while avoiding opening a Pandora’s box of sounds. That’s how it is in the real world: Some cars sound differently than others; it can even differ from one brand to the next,” spokesman Wade Newton said. “The alliance will continue working with National Federation of the Blind, and others, to work toward this being the model for an international safety standard. In the coming weeks we’ll review the proposal’s technical elements to help ensure that the safety standard meets the needs of the blind, and takes into appropriate consideration concerns about overall levels of ambient noise.”
Automakers told NHTSA not to worry about setting the specific sounds.
Automakers said “they did not believe it was necessary to try to prevent annoying sounds because manufacturers would not use annoying sounds as alert sounds because they do not want to annoy their customers,” NHTSA said.
NHTSA is considering allowing hybrid and electric vehicles to meet the minimum sound requirements for the backing scenario with a beeping sound similar to the sound made by a backing truck, but wants to know “whether such a sound would be annoying to the public.”
NHTSA said at 18 mph and above, vehicles make sufficient noise to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to detect them without added sound.
NHTSA is allowing automakers to have a significant range of choices about the sounds it chooses for its vehicles, but the characteristics of the sounds must meet certain minimum requirements.
NHTSA says each vehicle of the same make and model would need to emit the same sound or set of sounds.
NHTSA estimates the proposal will lead to 2,800 fewer pedestrian and cyclist injuries over the life of each model year, compared to vehicles without sound.
NHTSA has been studying the issue since 2007.
In September 2009, NHTSA’s study of 600,000 crashes found hybrid vehicles are two times more likely than traditional gas-powered vehicles to be in a pedestrian crash when the vehicle is backing out, slowing or stopping, starting in traffic, and entering or leaving a parking spot.
NHTSA is working with regulators in Japan and the European Union to set a single standard for automakers worldwide for minimum sound levels through a United Nations working group.
In developing the rules, NHTSA staff traveled to the national headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, where NHTSA staff were blindfolded and trained to use a white cane outside on city streets with blind and visually impaired individuals as guides.
NHTSA officials attempted to navigate city streets and cross at non-signaled intersections.