Motoramic

Why electric cars need sounds, not just noise

Motoramic

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is finally getting around to mandating that electric and hybrid vehicles must make noise when traveling at low speeds so pedestrians, cyclists and the visually impaired know they’re coming. At least those remaining few who’ve chosen not to defeat their audial experience of the external world with earbuds, Beats headphones and the like.

Yes, hearing things coming at you. What a concept. Like hearing itself, so undeniably vital in the real world, right up there with seeing as one of Mother Nature’s best defenses against getting run over, even before the advent of the motorcar. Not unlike automobiles you can’t see, automobiles you can’t hear are a ready danger. And when you can’t see them and you can’t hear them, both, brother, you better look out.

NHTSA says mandating electric car noise will prevent 2,800 pedestrian and cyclist injuries every year, protecting those who can’t ever see along with those who usually can. Electric cars remain eerily quiet at low speed, especially when you compare their sound profile to the menacing amalgam of gasping, sucking and farting noises an approaching internal-combustion-engine automobile makes as it loudly prepares to rumble across your path.

While some will object to yet another nanny state government intrusion into the design of automobiles, the change is relatively minor, easily effected and not wildly expensive, at all. And it makes total sense. While the whooshing of tires only grows with speed, the hum of electric motors whirring is always faint, meaning electric cars make virtually no noise at low speeds, before tire and wind noise kick in. Carmakers, safety advocates and regulators agree that such silence poses a danger; the 2010 congressional directive calling for synthetic electric car noise faced virtually no opposition from the industry.

I personally discovered the danger of the sounds of EV silence as far back as 2007, test-driving a prototype Tesla sports car along 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach, when I nearly took out a couple of old duffers obliviously crossing the road to the next hole without once looking to see the speeding two-seater bearing down on them. It took me several seconds to realize that this golfing duo were not meaning to act in the manner of over-entitled lords of the realm, who couldn't bother to turn their heads or halt their gait for anything. Rather they were a couple of unfortunates who couldn't hear me coming. I braked hard, just in time to closely observe them shaking their over-entitled but genuinely startled fists my way. It was an experience I’ll not forget; the sure look of terror and surprise in their eyes undoubtedly mirroring that in my own, with the added elements, in their case, of anger and excess privilege.

NHTSA’s proposed rule will require electric and hybrid cars to generate noise up to 18 mph, beyond which, the agency has concluded, the cars become noisy enough to be heard. (Not apparently the case with that early Tesla I drove, right?) While the agency will use public input to craft a final rule, it has preliminarily concluded that the sounds of conventional engines are best. Some narrow flexibility –a small menu of sound choices – is anticipated. Maybe it will be like the old days once again, when you could tell by its distinctive engine sounds that a Volkswagen product had pulled up. Same thing with Volvos, MGs and Chryslers with slant sixes; you didn't even have to look to know what had arrived.

But maybe it won’t be like the old days. The scope of the electric vehicle soundscape seems so predictable and disappointing, especially in the face of all the possible sounds there are in the world to choose from.

Forget the heavy breathing of V-12 Ferraris, the supercharged BRM V-16’s scream as it approaches its 12,000-rpm red-line, or the glorious basso profundo slurp of a Chrysler Max Wedge, Stage II injesting high-test through a four-barreled Carter. Now it seems those sounds can’t and won’t be among your choices. The hybrid Porsche 918 can sample the sound of its own rip-snorting gasoline engine, we presume, but will a Prius sound like a $375,000 Lexus LFA? It’d be no more expensive than sounding like a lowly Toyota four-cylinder, but I’m guessing not. I know they haven’t officially done anything yet in this arena, but I already feel confident in saying, maybe the car companies should try a little harder.

Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell our sound space?

The frustrating part is, when it comes to giving a car a sound, there’s so much opportunity for thinking outside the box. From chirping birds or rustling chimes to the opening guitar peals of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” from the strains of a lake steamer to the disembodied voice of (the late character actor) Charles Nelson Reilly, there are so many possible soundtracks with which to best announce your arrival in a speeding electric car. And why be limited to one? Different situations, different locales, different moods might all suggest a different soundtrack for your machine.

But instead we’re getting normalcy, convention, and seeming regularity. The electric car that sounds like an ICE car, a kind of vestigial transition from one technology to the next, the way radiator grilles came to mimic the look of the actual radiators they’d replaced. So, actually, kind of weird.

The ones most likely to oppose electric car noise regulations at this late date are those least in touch with reality, the same lunatic Libertarian fringers that have a beef with traffic lights and stop signs as unwanted intrusions into the expression of our free will. If they still feel obligated to oppose the regulation, I wish they’d couch their argument in a more appealing First Amendment framework — Damn it, the feds are abridging our freedom of speech by denying us the right to make our 2019 electric Jeeps sound like lawn mowers, Radiohead and/or George C. Scott in the movie Patton. Or a right whale.

And why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell our sound space to advertisers, the same as someone may rent a billboard to someone who wants to sell something? That's air space that gets in my face. Why mustn't you listen to an unwanted message, too? What's different about sound intrusion, especially when it's also meant to warn of danger? Does the right to pursue happiness as outlined in the Declaration of Independence not comprise the right to pursue money? Or a car that sounds like a whoopee cushion? And a malcontent of a different bent might ask, why shouldn't the government sell the rights to noise pollute to generate revenue to pay for worthy programs?

Either way, it's time to raise your muskets, folks, and keep them raised. When they come to take your civil liberties in their noisy electric cars you’ll be wearing your earbuds, and won’t hear them coming.

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