The deadly silence surrounding electric vehicles has led regulators to require the installation of noise generating devices to alert pedestrians to their presence. Starting in 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require that all newly manufactured electric vehicles under 10,000 pounds are outfitted with devices that produce sounds when the vehicles travel at speeds of less than 30 km per hour or while they are shifted into reverse mode.

This requirement is aimed at reducing the potential for collisions with pedestrians in parking lots, neighborhood streets, intersections, and other areas where pedestrians are present. Those pedestrians and cyclists at greatest risk of experiencing a collision with an electric vehicle are those who are blind or deaf and lack full sensory awareness of their surroundings.

The Real Risks of Electric Vehicles

Pedestrians in the proximity of electric vehicles are at significant risk of suffering severe injuries in a collision. Electric vehicles are 35% more likely than combustion engine vehicles to be involved in a pedestrian-involved accident. Cyclists are at even greater risk and drivers of electric vehicles are 57% more likely to strike a cyclist while driving.

Nationwide, the rates of pedestrian-involved accidents are rising. In 2006, there were 4,795 pedestrian fatalities. That number rose to 5,376 in 2015. The 12% increase in fatalities was mirrored by the 14.8% rise in the number of injuries. In 2006, there were 61,000 pedestrian injuries. By 2015, that number rose to 70,000.

The significant increase in fatalities and injuries has coincided with the increase of the number of electric vehicles on the road. The current number of pedestrian fatalities is still significantly less than the 37,757 total automobile accident fatalities recorded in 2015, however, regulators are concerned the rates will rise in the future as electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles become increasingly common. It is estimated that the regulations going into effect in 2019 will reduce the number of electric vehicles involved pedestrian injury accidents by 2,400.

Nissan Sings the Praises of the Future

Nissan is outfitting their all-electric and driverless vehicles with devices that sing to alert pedestrians that a vehicle is operating near them. The device produces an unmistakable techno sound that is unlike other sounds found in the natural environment. In theory, this sound will stand out from the noises made by other vehicles including cars and trams, construction equipment, etc.

Other vehicle manufacturers including Mercedes, Chevrolet, and Toyota are rolling out similar devices for their electric and autonomous vehicle fleets. These vehicles make a wide variety of sounds ranging from hums to chirps and beeps. Sound engineers within these companies are working to develop sounds that are easily distinguishable in an effort to provide sufficient warning to pedestrians that a vehicle is nearby.

The Dangerous Chorus

Electric vehicles remain a small portion of the total number of vehicles on the road. As a result, the noise generating devices on these vehicles is likely to be highly noticeable at first. However, electric vehicle sales have skyrocketed 641% from January 2013 to November 2016. It is a trend that is picking up steam as more and more drivers seek out cleaner, less-costly vehicles to own and operate that are not as sensitive to price fluctuations within the oil market. In 2016, electric vehicle sales grew 41% over 2015 and it is estimated that by 2040, approximately 35% of all vehicles on the road will be electric.

This will create a flood of new electric vehicles that will sing together in an ever louder chorus of sounds. It is quite likely that as with combustion vehicles, pedestrians will simply tune out the sound, thus negating the potential benefits these sound generating devices promise. It is also possible that the various sounds will conflict with one another and create an echo chamber of audio sensory information coming from multiple directions at intersections and on side streets that will overwhelm the brain’s ability to process it effectively.

Pedestrian Safety Depends on Driver Awareness

Electric vehicle operators have the same duty of care as other vehicle operators. Essentially, it is the driver’s responsibility to remain aware of the surroundings and take steps to prevent collisions with pedestrians and cyclists traversing parking lots, traveling in bike lanes, crossing intersections, etc.

Regardless of the sound an engine generates, that responsibility will not change with the evolution of technology. Moreover, there remains time for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or Congress to update laws and regulations regarding the sounds electric vehicles must emit. It is quite conceivable that as more research is conducted, these laws and regulations will become more detailed so that the sounds required from electric vehicles will have the perfect pitch, tone, and decibel level required to keep pedestrians safe from personal injuries and wrongful deaths.