Saturday, September 8, 2018

The "Making Cars Noisier Act of 2010" Moves Toward Implementation

In 2010, the US Congress acted on a problem that very few of us knew existed: electric cars are too quiet, especially at low speeds, and therefore pedestrians and bicyclists are more likely to get hit by an electric car.  The answer?  Make electric cars noisier.  That raises the questions of exactly how noisy and exactly what kinds of noise.  After years of study, it appears they've started ruling on just how to fix this. 
A 2009 study by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists have higher incidence rates for EVs than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in low-speed vehicle maneuvers, such as reversing or leaving a parking zone. These accidents commonly occurred in zones with low speed limits, during daytime and in clear weather.

The study revealed that an EV is two times more likely to be involved in a pedestrian crash than a conventional ICE vehicle when it’s slowing or stopping, backing up, or entering or leaving a parking space. Vehicle maneuvers were grouped in one category considering those maneuvers that might have occurred at very low speeds where the difference between the sound levels produced by the EV versus ICE vehicle is the greatest.
To be honest, the law wasn't called the "Make Cars Noisier Act of 2010", I made that up.  It sounds more truthful to me than the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010, enacted into law in January 2011.

Stop and think about this for a second.  Something virtually every engineer learns deep into the core of their being is engineering is all about optimizing solutions for problems.  There's very rarely a single "best" way to solve any given problem.  If there was, it wouldn't be a design decision: everybody would do it the best way.  Instead, engineering is the art of optimization, or negotiation, if you will.  In this case, the cars were optimized for technical goals that electric car buyers shop for, such as being "greener" than their neighbors' cars or how many miles on a battery charge.  The EV designers optimized those and it allowed the cars to get quiet.  "Too" quiet (to quote too many movies).
The NHTSA found that sound produced by an EV is from its tires, the air, and sometimes the whine of its electronics. If the car was going fast enough, tire noise was usually enough to warn pedestrians and bicyclists of possible danger. When an EV moves slowly, its generated noise is barely noticeable, posing a danger to anyone nearby. To be safe, a slow-moving EV should produce a sound that indicates:
  • Its presence
  • Its approximate location
  • Whether it’s moving toward or away from the listener
  • Roughly how fast it’s moving
The generated sounds would be heard frequently even in light traffic and continually in heavy traffic, so they must not be annoying. Also, the generated sound should be different from sirens, horns, and backup signals, all of which are intended as aggressive warnings. The challenge for EVs is to make sounds that alert and orient, but not annoy.
This sounds like a job for The Federal Government!  In this case, as embodied by NHTSA.  NHTSA (by the way, that's pronounced "nits-a", short a) spent years studying the sounds electric cars should make and issued Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 141: Minimum sound for hybrid and electric vehicles over a year and half ago in December 2016.   They followed the standard government "Administrative Procedures Act" with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, a comment period, a review of comments, a revision that accepted some proposed changes and rejected others, eventually resulting in the final version. 
Effective April 27, 2018, all hybrid and electric vehicle regulations were amended and will be applicable beginning on September 1, 2020. The initial compliance date for newly manufactured vehicles under the 50% phase-in as specified in FMVSS No. 141 is delayed by one year to September 1, 2019. Petitions for reconsideration of this final action were due by April 12, 2018.
I can't tell you how much I'd like to include samples of all the possible sounds cars will be required to produce, but the original source article didn't include any sound samples.  It does, however, include some of the minutia that makes government standards organizations fun. 

The whole detailed section is too long to excerpt here, but I really recommend you read it if you find this stuff at least half as funny as I do.  I'll just drop a couple of paragraphs here about how Nissan addressed making their cars noisier.  
Nissan unveiled the IMx, its newest electric concept that sings. It emits a noise like a demonic string quartet tuning its instruments. Nissan calls the feature Canto—which literally means “I sing” in Italian—and it’s built to alert pedestrians that the very quiet electric vehicle is coming, even at low speeds. 

Nissan released its first pedestrian warning with the 2011 Leaf. The Canto concept improves on the model, adapting its tone and pitch to the car’s actions—accelerating, decelerating, or backing up. The carmaker's designers of course wanted to create noises that put pedestrians on high alert, but were careful to design sounds that “enrich the aural environment of the typical city street,” according to a statement. If a city street naturally sounds like the warm-up room at an ‘80s synth rock convention, this Nissan crossover concept should fit right in.

Nissan's IMx. "...a demonic string quartet tuning its instruments..."


  1. I knew this was coming years ago. One of the reviewers at Car and Driver noted how quiet these cars were years ago, and jokingly wrote that he envisioned a day when Big Gov would require noisemakers added to these cars.

    I say make it sound like a Big-Block Corvette with side pipes and be done with it.....

    1. Or just put a Big Block Corvette engine in it. Keep the electric drive, and run the V8 for effect. Also, add a "Stealth Mode" switch.

  2. I'm reminded of the Sci-Fi? story of the car in some future socialist time that had a stereo system with engine noises, but was actually powered by a clockwork spring that took a long time to wind up. Guy built it to annoy the neighbors.

    Doesn't Ford or GM have some vehicles that produce v8 noises from the stereo when driven, even when turned off?

    1. Owners of the Mustang complained that it didn't sound powerful enough, so engine noises are reproduced by the sound system.

  3. You can't make this kind of insanity up.

    But you can shoot its authors in the head, which is even better.

    Nota bene the idea of holding the bicyclists and pedestrians accountable for putting their iPhones away, and watching WTF they're doing, and where they're going at all times was never, for even a fleeting moment, considered by our governmental would-be overlords.

    I'm sanguine in the long-run; I have both a gambling marker at Vegas, and a stake in the copyright, for the first class-action lawsuit when thousands of people sue the car makers for hearing problems after long-term exposure to governmental-induced noise, so my retirement is now fully funded, with the certainty of the sun rising.

    But as for civilization itself, and general sanity?
    There's only one answer.

    Assembly required.

    1. And if we're voting, I want my EV to sound like the old TV Batmobile's jet engine, complete with blue flames from the tail exhaust every time I accelerate. If it can use spotted owl carcasses, diesel fuel, the dirtiest crude oil, high-sulfur coal, or nuclear power for that effect, bonus points.

      So much for zero emissions.
      "Green" communists' heads exploding just a serendipitous cherry on that cake.

  4. Ford currently add enhancement audio to the Mustang GT; just put that module on EVs and be done with it. Who wouldn't want their EV to sound like a well tuned V8?

  5. I would suggest they just add a computer-generated voice to shout at 140 db when it detects an animate object in front of the vehicle. The wording should be something simple, but should properly convey the mindset of the car's operator. Probably something along the lines of:


    1. Mongo like.

      I see that horn module flying off the shelves at J.C. Whitney.

      The GOOTWYFA Train Horn.

  6. I worked at a large tourist attraction for a number of years. For internal transportation of employees, carrying supplies and so on they originally used electric golf carts. After a number if incidents where visitors were nearly hit because they couldn't hear them coming, we switched to...wait for it...gasoline-powered golf carts, because they made more noise and people noticed them.

    Perhaps switching from electric cars to gasoline-powered cars could achieve the same end?

    1. While I was writing this, I had an idea for another thought I should include, and then the idea went away. I'll add it here.

      This is the Law of Unintended Consequences. As you make cars more energy efficient, they'll get quieter. Noise is wasted energy, so if a gas engine could be made 100% efficient (not a chance), it would be silent. Its exhaust would also be cold; every last joule of energy would be gotten out of it.

      This all means the government is mandating cars be more efficient, and then mandating they be less efficient by putting energy into noise makers.

  7. There IS a lower tech solution that has been around for a while ... THIS:

    It might save a few dollars in research grant, eh?

    Phil B

    1. Nah. Train horn.

    2. Phil, I used to do that, but didn't everyone?

      So NHTSA could mandate car makers develop a playing card that doesn't get soggy when wet and lasts something like 50,000 miles. Then they'd make car makers use wheels with enough spokes to trigger the cards.

      No more ridiculous than what they're doing now.

  8. I vote for having them play the Jaws theme

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