Are electric vehicles too quiet?

A consultation process, closing this week, is asking Australians if they think EVs should be equipped with “acoustic alerting systems” due to fears they could be a hazard for pedestrians or cyclists.

The technology would digitally mimic the sound of a combustion engine and play it through external speakers to better alert Australians when they’re crossing the road or in a car park.

Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Carol Brown said that while EVs have “obvious environmental benefits” they can be difficult to hear, increasing the risk of collisions.

Difficult for blind people

It’s particularly worrying for blind and low-vision Australians, who rely on sound to navigate.

“As the popularity of electric vehicles grows and we work towards becoming a cleaner, greener nation, the Australian government is committed to ensuring they are safe for both the driver and all road users,” Ms Brown said.

“While EVs have obvious environmental benefits, we know they can be difficult for vulnerable road users and cyclists to hear, increasing the danger of collisions, serious injuries and fatalities.”

Combustion vehicles can reach sounds of about 70 decibels, but EVs operate at about half that noise level because they’re powered by batteries.

Minimum noise laws

The danger of quieter roads has emerged as an unexpected byproduct of the EV transition globally in recent years, with places like the US, UK, Japan and the European Union passing laws setting minimum noise requirements for EVs and enforcing the use of external speakers.

Modelling by Monash University Accident Research Centre estimates introducing such tech in Australia could save 65 lives and prevent 5000 injuries over a 35-year period, benefits the government believes could be even greater because cyclist collisions would also likely decline.

Vehicle manufacturers are adopting the technology en masse as they begin to release new lines of EVs, with some even turning their attention to what their cars sound like for motorists, too.

In fact, BMW has made headlines by contracting renowned composer Hans Zimmer to create the engine sounds for its top-of-the-line EV, which has begun shipping around the world.

As the above video shows, it’s probably not the sort of sound you’re used to coming from a car.

BMW isn’t the only one either; in response to sound regulations Nissan brought in musician Danni Venne to design the sound of its electric vehicle, leaf, with the company using the laws as a marketing opportunity to drive excitement about the EV transition.

In Australia, where the EV market is still relatively small, the government is considering requiring vehicles to contain external speakers for light vehicles, particularly at low speeds when “tyre and wind noise is negligible”.